I was about the age of these girls when the Equal Pay Act was passed. It was pretty inspiring stuff. If only I’d known that, 45 years later, the legislation would have become so bogged down and loophole-ridden that women would still be paid almost 10% less than men on average if we work full time, it might not have been such a cause for celebration. The time has come for a new Equal Pay Act.
The principle behind the 1970 act is that if a woman finds a man doing similar work but getting paid more, she can take her employer to a tribunal and get paid equally and compensated. Sounds simple enough. But actually there’s something very wrong with a system that relies on individual victims of discrimination bringing change on a piecemeal basis, because if a women takes her employer to tribunal and wins, the only obligation on the employer is to give her redress. There is no obligation to look at any potential endemic discrimination within the organisation.
On top of that, the law has been hamstrung by a whole load of stupid loopholes that have developed over the years. Did you know that if a man takes your job and is paid more than you, you can’t rely on that as evidence of discrimination? Or that if a male colleague is paid more for similar work for the same boss but works in another building, there can be serious argument that he is not “a fair comparator”?
Clearly we need to sweep these loopholes away for a start. But we also need a profound culture change and radical legislation. We should treat women making complaints as whistle-blowers and a valid complaint should trigger a requirement on organisations to audit how they pay people, including a proper skills audit, and job evaluation, overseen by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
The other important driver is to encourage negotiation, and a new Equal Pay Act should have a Code of Conduct that will inspire confidence in collective agreements.
The 1970 act never envisaged an employment market like today’s, with its fractured employment practices and insecure working. We need a new Act to restore and strengthen guarantees on terms and conditions for public sector workers transferred to the private sector, close loopholes in agency worker regulations, and create statutory rules against sham self-employment.
Radical though a new Act along these lines would be, we have to be honest and accept it won’t deal with some of the major causes of inequality, like the clustering of women in low paid jobs like catering, cleaning and care work.
But that should not hold us back from making the changes we need. In fact, we should kick start the move towards a new system by introducing a set of time-limited new rules to accelerate progress, let’s say five years. During this time we should waive fees for equal pay claims for these whistle-blowers.
Companies that do a full skills audit and act on it should have a prima facie defence to any claim. And for this five-year period, compensation for failure to pay equally should be limited to two years back pay, as stated in the original Act.
This deep-seated problem needs focus, political will, and an acceptance that this is a problem we all have responsibility to tackle. Let’s not wait until these EGA girls reach middle age!