Thursday, 22 December 2011

South Lanarkshire

Today's Daily Record has a major article on the ongoing equal pay claims against South Lanarkshire Council - which concluded in the Glasgow Employment Tribunal yesterday.

Here's what the paper has to say.

For a change I don't have much to add - simply that the comments of the union are so weak and pathetic - they don't even merit a response.

Female council staff fighting for equal pay could cost local authority £200m

By Annie Brown

Thousands of low paid women are closer to settling an equal pay claim against one of Scotland’s largest councils.

A bitter two-year pre-hearing to decide whether the discrimination case will go to a full industrial tribunal ended yesterday.

And it means the women are nearer than ever to a resolution in their case, which could cost South Lanarkshire Council £200million.

The 2300 female workers have accused the council of conspiring with their union to win male workers higher pay.

If the decision goes against the council, they will have to decide whether they can justify any more taxpayers’ cash fighting the case after six years of litigation.

Lawyers acting for the women have portrayed them as victims of a “boys’ club” made up of Old Labour stalwarts and their union buddies.

The women claim they were ignored by politicians and betrayed by their union Unison after years of paying their dues.

They claim Unison colluded with South Lanarkshire Council to win extra bonuses for male workers while the women on the same pay grade got nothing.

Some of the women were said to be earning £10,000 less than their male equivalents, or up to 50 per cent of their salaries.

If they win their case, it will open the floodgates to thousands of other claims.

Sandra Herd, 61, retired from her catering job at Auchinraith Primary in Blantyre last month, after 23 years’ service.

She said: “Over the years, women started to realise the men were getting all these bonuses that we weren’t and there was something badly wrong.

“We were doing a good job. We were going in early and not getting paid for it. Then to learn that men on the same grade were getting more money, it felt terrible. We were supposed to be equal but certainly we haven’t been treated that way.”

But she said that when they took it to the union, they were told they didn’t have a case. She added: “I’ve been in the union all my days and felt very badly betrayed. They did nothing for us. I felt they were on the council’s side.”

There has been six years of litigation – two of them in the tribunal pre-hearing – and the women say there have been delaying tactics by the council’s legal team.

Sandra said: “I feel they were trying to grind us down but they underestimated us – we are not giving up.”

Their case was taken on a no win, no fee basis by Edinburgh solicitors Fox Cross. Director Carol Fox stood for Labour in Edinburgh West in 2003 and before she became a lawyer, she was a Unison official for four years.

But she said: “My commitment is to getting justice for these women. I think the way the union have handled equal pay for low paid women has been a disgrace.

“I am dismayed. I dedicated my life to workers’ rights. These women paid years of subs to the union and when they needed their help they didn’t get it.”

Most of the claims refer to manual female workers such as cleaners, carers and dinner ladies who were graded the same as manual male workers such as refuse collectors and street sweepers.

They were the same grade so should have been going home with the same money. But the unions negotiated extra bonus payments for the men and not the women.

Bonuses were a backdoor way of getting higher wages for the men in the 1980s, during periods of pay restraint.

They were initially tied to productivity but were never checked and, eventually, became consolidated in to men’s wages without any increase for the women’s jobs.

The tribunal heard evidence that the unions agreed with council umbrella group Cosla not to take on the women’s claims, because it would jeopardise the men’s higher wages.

It also agreed that the cost of compensating the women would be prohibitive.

Fox said: “It was about the unions not upsetting the apple cart.”

South Lanarkshire are the only council in Scotland who have refused to settle these types of equal pay claims.

The others admitted they couldn’t defend the reasoning behind the bonuses.

Authorities have already paid out more than £420million of taxpayers’ cash to more than 100,000 low paid, predominantly female, council workers.

South Lanarkshire took a different route, claiming they had conducted their own job evaluation scheme and the male and female jobs in question weren’t equivalent to each other.

Critics have dismissed the evaluation scheme as “back of the fag packet” logic.

The claims were lodged in 2005 and they are not only backdated for the previous five years, but for any period of employment since. Some are due 11 years’ compensation, which at £10,000 a year, amounts to £110,000.

Fox claims her team tried to persuade the council to settle but they “dug a hole and just kept digging”.

The case has seen barristers brought up from England, dozens of employment experts consulted and hundreds of witnesses. In the meantime, some of the women have died.

Fox revealed how she warned former Labour MSP for Hamilton South Tom McCabe about the claims.

Fox said: “I gave him my card and said, ‘Tom, you are never going to win this’. He took my card and shook his head. No one wanted to take responsibility. There just wasn’t the political will to help the women.”

So far, the only politician to have fought their corner is the SNP’s Alex Neil, MSP for Central Scotland. Fox said: “I am sure that the SNP see this as a chance to make inroads in Lanarkshire but I don’t care why they are supporting us, only that they are.”

One home care worker who is still employed by the council and did not want to be named said: “This is a point of principle, it always has been. They thought we were just women who would go away but we are not.

“When women like me were coming in on Christmas Day and public holidays, men doing an equivalent job were sitting at home getting extra pay. It just isn’t fair and we won’t let them away with it.”

Faced with a continuing council tax freeze, almost a third of Scotland’s 32 councils have asked for permission to borrow extra funds to help them meet the back-pay costs of outstanding claims.

In 2010, Unison conceded the women did have a case but any claims they lodge now will have lost the chance of an extra five years of compensation.

Last night, a spokesman for Unison said they were now defending some women but couldn’t say how many. And they criticised Fox Cross for taking 10 per cent of any compensation paid. The spokesman said: “If successful, Unison members will receive all of their award without having to hand any of it over to lawyers.”

South Lanarkshire Council claim they have always been committed to equality in the workforce. The spokesman added: “We do not believe there are any justified equal pay claims against us and it would be wrong to settle in these circumstances.

“We believe we have complied with equal pay legislation.”

The huge equal pay settlements will have to be met from the public purse.