The Equal Pay Act is 50 years old – but should we celebrate or commiserate?

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation that cemented equal pay in law. Yet still men continue to be paid more than women. Here, Leigh Day solicitor and Vice-Chair of the law firm’s Women’s Committee, Lara Kennedy, looks back on the history of equal pay.


1968 – Made in Dagenham

Had it not been for a group of female sewing machinists at a Ford factory in Dagenham going on strike, the Equal Pay Act may have taken even longer to pass.
Despite doing work of equal value to their male colleagues, they were classed as ‘less-skilled’ and as a result were paid less.
The majority of the machinists felt it was unfair for their hard work to be dismissed in this way, so they took a stand and their decision to strike resulted in production at the factory stopping.

It wasn’t until 1984 that sewing machinists at the factory were regraded, but their decision to strike triggered the passing of the Equal Pay Act.

1970 – The Equal Pay Act is enacted

In February 1970, Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment, stood up in the House of Commons for the second reading of the Equal Pay Act. Her intention was “to make equal pay for equal work a reality.”

Castle had fought tirelessly in supporting the female machinists at Ford Dagenham. But despite her tireless efforts to end discrimination on the grounds of sex, it took a further five years for the law to come into force.

When the act did come into effect, it protected women from receiving less favourable contract terms than a man. But what it failed to do was bring about a change of societal views and transparent pay practices.

1982 – Commission Vs UK

Fast forward 12 years, and the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK must guarantee the right to receive equal pay for work of equal value. This means that, where two jobs in the same company are different but of equal value, employees must be paid the same unless the employer can justify not doing so.
Conservative MP Tony Marlow protested that the Equal Pay Act amendment stood as “an open invitation to any feminist, and harridan or any rattle-headed female with a chip on her bra strap to take action against her employer”.

But despite this, in 1984 the UK Government was forced to amend the Equal Pay Act to include equal pay for work of equal value.

It is this limb of equal pay law that many claims are brought under today, including Leigh Day’s supermarkets equal pay claims. [LINK]

1988 – Julie Hayward Vs Cammell Laird

It was this amendment that allowed for a landmark claim which compared a cook and male shipyard craftsmen.

Julie Hayward worked as a cook in the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. She started as an apprentice at the age of 16 and when she and her fellow apprentices completed their training, the three men in the group got a pay rise – but Julie didn’t because they were classed as craftsmen, while she was considered a labourer.
Cammell Laird argued that the work of a woman in the kitchen was not comparable to what men did outside in the shipyard.

Julie’s defence produced photos of her carrying industrial-sized trays of pies for the shipbuilders’ lunches and putting them in a hot oven.

An independent expert analysed the different roles and found the work was of equal value. But it was more than four years after the start of Julie’s equal value claim, that the House of Lords found in her favour.

2012 – Birmingham City Council Equal Pay claims  

Leigh Day successfully brought claims on behalf of thousands of workers employed by the city council. They worked in predominantly female – dominated roles, such as cooks, carers and cleaners but were paid significantly less than male colleagues who performed roles such as refuse collectors and street cleaners, despite being on the same grade.

These claims established the principle that employees can bring equal pay claims for up to six years after leaving their employment in the Courts, rather than the Employment Tribunal’s restrictive six-months limitation. This landmark case resulted in a £757 million pay-out.

2016 – Asda Tribunal Ruling 

Believed to be the biggest legal action in the private sector, Leigh Day won against Asda in a ruling that female shop floors workers can compare their salary with the men in the warehouses under equal value law.

Following two further wins for Leigh Day in the Employment Appeal Tribunal in 2017 and the Court of Appeal in 2019, Asda have one final attempt to overturn the decision in the Supreme Court due to be heard later this year.

April 2017 – Gender Pay Gap Reporting is introduced

Since 2017 it is a legal requirement for companies with more than 250 employees to publish and report on figures about their gender pay gap. This shows the difference between the average hourly earnings of a company’s male and female employees.

This is different to equal pay – having a gender pay gap does not mean a company has an equal pay issue but it does encompass many of the same issues and are intrinsically linked in fairly assessing a woman’s worth in the workplace.

In the same year, female presenters called on the BBC to correct the pay disparity that existed with their male colleagues, following a report which disclosed a salary difference of £1.75 million in the highest male and female earners.

2020 – Fawcett’s Equal Pay Bill 

In February, women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society, published data revealing 36% of women remain unaware that they have a right to discuss salaries if they suspect they are a victim of pay discrimination. It also showed that two in five people are unaware of what ‘equal pay’ means and the rights it affords and less than a quarter of people (24%) report that salaries are discussed openly in their workplace.

Leigh Day were instrumental in drafting Fawcett’s Equal Pay Bill which came as a result of this data and would modernise equal pay law.
The proposals would give women who suspect they are not getting equal pay a ‘Right to Know’ what a male comparator is paid. This would mean women would have the opportunity to resolve equal pay issues without having to go to Tribunal.

What does this mean for the future of equal pay?

It cannot be denied that, since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, there have been considerable positive developments in equal pay for women, but in 2020 pay discrimination remains prevalent.

This is reflected by the fact that the number of cases brought to employment tribunals show no sign of decreasing. Since the 2007-08 financial year, employment tribunals in England and Wales have received more than 368,000 complaints relating to equal pay, an average of almost 29,000 complaints a year.
This year not only marks 50 years since the Equal Pay Act, but also a decade since it was replaced by the Equality Act 2010. It would be remiss of us to use these anniversaries just as a time of reflection, it also needs to be a time for change.

We need to see action and we need to see it now. We can’t look back in another 50 years still asking the question “why are men paid more than women?”


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