Birmingham City Co Gender Pay Case is a Muddy, Sticky Mess

Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 6:15 AM EDT

The findings against Birmingham City Council by an employment tribunal that it discriminated against women employees by paying men in equivalent roles up to 160 percent more is a very visible test-case on the challenges of narrowing in the gender pay gap in the UK.

Around 5,000 women council workers won the sex discrimination case which council union Unison has said could cost the local authority £30m in back-pay. It's a real victory in the campaign to bring employers that underpay women, in comparison to male colleagues, to book. But, the issue in this case isn't clear-cut.

On one side you have women carers, clerical staff and cleaners and on the other, you have male refuse collectors, gardeners and gravediggers. There's no implicit proof that any of these roles is more arduous or more critical to the council's responsibilities, but they are very different jobs.
So, it's not as crystal clear why the two groups should have pay parity, as if the plaintiffs were doing exactly the same job as the male wage-earners they are compared to.

The pay discrepancy is in the form of bonuses for reaching productivity levels and overtime, not basic pay. This is either rewarding extra effort to reach a goal, or a way of hiding sexual discrimination, whichever way you want to look at it.

This is of no matter though, according to a Unison spokeswoman, who points out it has been established all of these roles require similar skills, have similar responsibilities and are on the same basic pay-scale, and that's what matters in the eyes of the law.

The tribunal has ruled the extra payments to male workers discriminates against women employees at the council, whether or not the move was intentional, on that basis.

The obvious question that arises is: isn't this similar to bankers demanding bonuses, not because of outstanding performance, but because someone else in another bank is getting a bonus?

OK, this is splitting hairs, when one group is on subsistence income and another has the pay potential that is almost double that for a store manager or bank branch manager in Birmingham area, for instance.

The level of pay discrepancy can't realistically reflect any differences in roles or productivity levels found here.

Another point to consider is who is going to win out by this decision? The affected workers have a legal right to claim back-pay, but not from the male workers who received extra pay in the past. The money they receive will come from budgets for public services.

The case in Birmingham demonstrates how prickly the long overdue task of redressing the gender pay imbalance is going to be for every employer. Hopefully there can be some lessons learned by Birmingham City Council's experiences, which would be a good thing considering how much more likely this precedent makes other pay discrimination cases elsewhere.

(Pic: Dominic's pics cc2.0)