You are probably aware of the litigation that has been rumbling on for ten years in the public sector where local authorities are having to find back-pay for thousands of women such as dinner ladies in schools who have argued they should have been paid the same as male colleagues such as bin men, not least because of the financial consequences for the employers. For example Birmingham City Council is rumoured to be selling the NEC Arena to pay for the claims.

Here in Wales a group of 23 male staff at Trinity College recently accepted a settlement deal in respect of claims they had brought that their jobs as caretakers and tradesmen at Swansea Metropolitan University were of equal value as higher paid female secretaries and administrators, illustrating that gender comparisons can work in both directions. They will receive around half a million pounds.
Most private sector employers are aware of their duties in respect of equal pay ‘in theory’, perhaps giving the issue lip service, but how confident are you that no-one in your organisation could point to someone of the opposite sex doing the same job or work of equal value to them who is paid more or receives more in bonuses? When was the last time you risk-assessed your pay structure to spot potential equal pay issues?

The statistics on the equal pay gap suggest there is a persistent problem and it seems to be getting worse not better. In 2012, comparing all work, women earned 18.6% less per hour than men. Comparing those in full-time work, women earned an average of 14.9% less per hour than men – this means that for every £1 a man takes home, a woman takes home 85p. This gets even worse for part-timers where the gulf is 37%. Have you checked that your part-timers are pro-rata being paid the same as full-timers? Chances are they might not be.

The next wave of equal pay claims looks set to engulf the retail industry following the same legal team that supported the local authority workers issuing claims against Asda last month. The Asda cases will determine if the supermarket’s store staff jobs, which are mainly held by female workers, are of equal value to higher-paid jobs in the company’s male-dominated distribution centres. If they win, workers could be entitled to six years’ back pay for the difference in earnings and the wave of cases is likely to spread to other supermarket chains who are watching the outcome with keen interest.

The likely effect of the media interest in these stories is that individuals become more aware of their rights and more likely to start asking questions about their pay and fairness. More than any other area of law, equal pay issues have the propensity to become very expensive very quickly, not just because of the back pay that might be owed and the complexity of defending these cases at Tribunal, but because employees tend to group together and other employees ‘jump on the bandwagon’ where they see colleagues leading the way. Sensible employers will be looking to iron out potential issues over the next few years.