The equal pay bomb that could wipe out public sector jobs

Birmingham's £1 billion settlement on 'comparable jobs' makes outsourcing look very attractive

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

I have just decided that my work is of equal value to that of the feminist supermodel Cameron Russell. Neither of us, admittedly, is quite as useful as a plumber, and I can’t claim to be of much use promoting swimwear. But otherwise I reckon we are a pretty close match. We both tart ourselves around and while my work doesn’t involve a lot of physical input, I would like to think that it requires a slightly higher contribution from the brain department.

There then arises the question: should I not be paid as much as she is? Ludicrous? Perhaps, but no more so, I think, than what is going on in Birmingham, where council taxpayers are facing a £1 billion bill for a mass equal pay claim on the part of 11,000 female staff. Not even the proposed sale of the National Exhibition Centre will fill the hole: it has been valued at only £300,000. The city council is facing the wholesale closure of art galleries, museums and leisure centres, as well as the curtailment of social care services and children’s services. The bill is about twice what Birmingham spends running its schools in a year.

The winners, until they want to send their children to school or need a meal on wheels, are the 11,000 staff who are in line for a windfall. One dinner lady is rumoured to have been told to expect £190,000 in backdated pay, with interest. Had these women been paid less than men whom they were working alongside, you could see it as a case of discrimination. But there is no evidence that dinner ladies were paid less than dinner men, if such people exist. Rather they were employed in jobs which, retrospectively, an employment tribunal has ruled to be of ‘equal value’ to male-dominated occupations. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has helpfully provided a list of male-dominated and female-dominated occupations which are now, thanks to employment tribunal cases, deemed to command equal pay. Being a school nursery nurse is, apparently, of equal value to being a local government architectural technician. Being a canteen worker is of equal value to being a surface mineworker, or a plumber.

Except, presumably, when you have a broken boiler. That is the problem with deeming completely different occupations to be of equal value: it is entirely subjective. But then that is what makes it so useful to the no-win, no-fee lawyers who have hit the jackpot in bringing these cases. The vaguer the law, the more work there is for lawyers.

The concept of work of equal value is a bomb which has been planted beneath the public finances. It destroys the labour market. It is now impossible for Birmingham City Council, or any public sector employer, to respond to a shortage of architectural technicians by upping their pay without also giving nursery nurses a pay rise.

And of course there is a ratchet effect. Logically, when ordered to pay office cleaners the same as dustmen, Birmingham City Council could have solved the problem by cutting dustmen’s pay. The council did in fact try this, but of course the dustmen went on strike and so the end result of the equal pay ruling was an overall rise in the wage bill.

When I first heard of equal value claims, I imagined that they must have been placed on the statute book in an underhand move by Harriet Harman. Sure enough, the last Labour government did have a role: Blair sparked off the claims with ‘single status agreements’ with public sector unions in 1999, which placed a duty on public sector bodies to introduce pay scales that matched female-dominated occupations with male ones. But here is a surprise: the underlying legislation, which introduced the concept of work of equal value into discrimination claims, turns out to be the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983, passed in the heyday of supposed free-market Thatcherism.

The coalition has not lifted a finger to defuse the bomb of equal value pay claims. There really is no party which advocates a functioning labour market in the public sector. It is an area of public policy which has been surrendered unconditionally to feminism and the public sector unions.

The unions no doubt feel pleased with themselves, but ultimately equal value pay claims will undermine the public sector. They will render the employment of public servants so expensive that virtually every activity will have to be contracted out to the private sector to save taxpayers a ruinous bill from equal value pay claims. If you will excuse the gender-specific occupational reference, what the axeman is about to lop from Birmingham’s budget he will soon be lopping from the public sector nationwide.

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Ross Clark compiles our weekly ‘Barometer’. His books include How to Label a Goat.

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Show comments
  • Liz

    Yes because drawing an equivalence between blog writing to super modelling is *exactly* what is happening here. Snarky.

    You know there’s a cheaper alternative to creating parity between male and female public sector pay than raising the women’s. We could always reduce the men’s. No, thought not.

    • Andrew Smith

      The point is that men
      and women should be paid equally for doing the same job, not for different jobs
      which require a different skill-set and for which there are varying levels of
      market demand / involve a varying level of profit generation. The comparison is spot on.

      A nursery nurse
      requires a lower level of qualification than an architectural technician, and
      gets paid less. The journo creates less profit than the swimwear model, which
      is expressed in the lower level of remuneration. Said nurse is welcome to
      re-train and get a better paid job. Instead, someone winges on her behalf, that
      it’s not fair….

      • Liz

        Nonsense. Men and women tend to do different jobs. Men’s jobs tend to be better paid than women’s for no other reason other than men have been in charge of setting salaries and deciding which skills are valuable.

        Parity is what matters. Jobs that require similar levels of education and skills and which produce similar value to the public should be paid similar amounts.

        The era of men deciding how valuable women are is over.

        • Andrew Smith

          This is a case of Dr Johnson’s stone…

        • uberwest

          The salary should be, as in the private sector, the minimum required to adequately fill the position. How are you going to find bin men, and I emphasise the word MEN, or sewage workers, if you don’t pay sufficiently well to attract job seekers to what must be a fairly unpleasant job?

          • James

            Exactly. She seems to think there is some evil cabal of men somewhere twirling their moustaches, while setting the value for things.
            People want their bins collected more than they want the money it costs to have them collected. If bin men earned the same wage as a low paid council paper shuffler, all of the bin men would quit and try to get those jobs.

            You have to ask yourself if the women that are being “discriminated” against felt so hard done by, why didn’t they just become bin men? The answer is of course that they valued their warm, sedentary workspaces more than the extra quid.

          • Terry Field

            You know it makes sense.

        • StephanieJCW

          “Men’s jobs tend to be better paid than women’s for no other reason other than men have been in charge of setting salaries and deciding which skills are valuable.”

          You cannot believe this crock of shit. Salaries are set by employers using the market as a guide. They will increase salaries in a shortage and decrease when there isn’t one. If you genuinely believe what you wrote, that binmen receive higher salaries than cleaners because ‘men have been in charge of setting salaries’ you are quite mad.

          And there is nothing stopping those women who want a higher salary from applying to be refuse collectors…

          • RichardMorris

            It’s not mad. Binmen extras – like bonuses and attendance allowances – were negotiated (in Birmingham at least) locally, not by the state. All the negotiators were men. That is one of the reasons Birmingham City Council lost.

            As to your record point. There is a ‘market forces/skills shortages’ defence to unequal pay. Perhaps you ought to read up on it?

      • StephanieJCW

        “Said nurse is welcome tore-train and get a better paid job. Instead, someone winges on her behalf, that
        it’s not fair….”

        Thumbs up.

    • StephanieJCW

      Why falsely compare jobs. There is no need to raise jobs dominated by women, just because those dominated by men are remunerated more highly.

      • Terry Field

        Islarm says mimin is idul!

  • Ahobz

    As soon as I read this, I saw the EU involvement. Ross, I normally enjoy and respect your journalism, but you have not done your research here. The 1983 regulations were passed following the UK’s defeat in case 61/81 European Commission v UK [1982]I.R.L.R. 333, which was about the implementation by the UK of Directive 75/117 on equal pay. It was quite a cause celebre at the time.

  • DaHitman

    If you have a physical job the women isn’t going to do the same as the man so why should she get paid the same, that is sexist!

  • StephanieJCW

    When feminists wonder why so many young(er) women such as myself have an issue with classing themselves as ‘feminists’ this is why. This is not about equality. It’s a false equality.

    The issue appears to be that jobs that tend to be more popular with women tend to have a lower value, thus lower salary and that this is somehow ‘discriminatory’. To remedy this by drawing a false ‘equivalence’ is absolutely idiotic. Would it not be more intelligent to encourage young women to broaden their horizons? Jobs don’t receive a value based on the sex of the person doing it, but the view of the required skill level, difficulty etc. To then just decide to take a random set of ‘male’ jobs and find a random set of ‘female’ jobs, and declare them ‘equal value’ makes no sense.

    How on earth did this ever come to pass?

  • Terry Field

    The sooner the public sector is nothing more than a commissioner of private sector supply the better.

  • aurila

    just get rid of the public sector completely

  • Beaniewoman

    As a public sector female worker (not undergoing an equal pay claim) I can clarify that my own job description states I should be available ‘outside of normal working hours’ and to be ‘on call’ to attend certain circumstances that my position demands. Street lighting operatives (as far as I know exclusively male) have the same ‘out of hours’ demands however they have traditionally received ‘on call’ and ‘out of hours’ payments which have not been open to me. The disparity is in the role and the rewards and not just the gender. Many male colleagues have received payouts and only today we hear of the Welsh male operatives winning an equal pay claim against their employers.