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Isn’t it about time..?

| May 17th 2011

The new equal pay duty for Wales will require all affected public authorities in Wales to examine their workforce data to identify who works where in the organisation, their employment conditions and require an action plan to tackle gender pay gaps. Public authorities can also choose to make realising equal pay for other dimensions of inequality one of their equality objectives.

Research commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government (Parken, Rees and Baumgardt 2009) which reviewed global policy approaches to intervening in the mechanisms that reproduce inequity in the ways different groups of the population are employed, was the first step in assessing the evidence for the need for a new approach to attaining equal pay, and whether there was enthusiasm for doing more than comparing the pay of employees in same or similar value jobs.  As we’ll see, such a comparison is difficult when men and women have such different employment contracts and do very different jobs within organisations.

The findings of this review identified such disparities. Men accounted for over a quarter of local government employees in Wales and held very few part time jobs whereas the nearly three quarters of the workforce who were women, were much more likely to be employed part time. This low-hours work is now being described as under employment in the recent Europe 2020 jobs and growth strategy.

However, earlier research for the EHRC on settling back pay claims in local government had already demonstrated that women often want to work longer hours (Parken and Baumgardt 2008). Employed on 14, 16 or 18 hours a week contracts, the women interviewed usually worked more hours than this (frequently working up to 28 per week was not unusual) but of course received no overtime or time in lieu until their hours exceeded the full time male working norm hours of 35 per week. And of course, these contracts meant that they didn’t realise the benefits of secure higher hours working in terms of pension, holiday and sick pay entitlements.

It isn’t unusual for women employees in the public sector to have multiple low-hours contracts with the same employer (albeit different parts of the organisation with separate contracts for each job). Again separate contracts are not added up to provide the social protection benefits and opportunities for training or advancement associated with full time workers. Low-hours near minimum wage contracts are concentrated in work culturally typified as ‘women’s work’   (caring, cleaning, catering and customer service) whereas as similarly skilled jobs typified a ‘men’s work’ achieve flexible working through shift patterns and overtime around a full time contractual ‘norm’.

The equal pay duty will require organisations to ask why part time low hours working is a default position for organising work in certain occupations where women are concentrated, and assess the opportunities for fairer and possibly more efficient ways of working. This is not to say that part time work shouldn’t be available to those women who choose it, and in the higher level occupations too where it is scarce, but that employers do not impose this type of arrangement on the assumption that it is what women want[1].

In our research with these very low paid women in local government, none of them had caring responsibilities, children were at school or university and none reported involvement in elder care or caring for children or adults with disabilities. They wanted to work more hours. They welcomed more training and improving skills. Their pay in many cases was vital to keeping the whole family out of poverty.

Moving to fairer work organisation and perhaps working towards economic independence for women, is a considerable task. There are nearly twice as many women employees as men overall in the Welsh public sector. Full time jobs (permanent and casual) account for 72 per cent of available work.  Ninety per cent of men and nearly two thirds of women are employed full time. Part time work accounts for just 10 per cent of men’s total employment in the public sector but 36 per cent of all women’s. Of the total part time workforce, men comprise around 14 per cent, compared to women at 86 per cent (see referenced and further data in the ‘Anatomy of Inequality report, Davies et.al. 2011, WISERD website: http://www.wiserd.ac.uk/research/completed-projects/inequality-in-wales/).

It will take many years to correct the historical disadvantage embedded in labour market systems and practices. However, this Equal Pay Duty, unique in the UK, is another statement of intent at political and administration levels to intervene in how social and economic divisions inform (often unconsciously) how we value jobs, pay and conditions of employment according to who works in them (and in so doing reinforce who will work in them in the future). My hope is that public sector employers will not just comply with this duty but take the opportunity to proactively create new ways of working that will provide real choice in job availability in each area, and through better opportunities help to prevent the impoverishment of another generation of women in Wales.


[1] See the ‘think piece’ on choice in relation to equal pay and women’s working patterns in the recent report ‘An Anatomy of Inequalities in Wales’ compiled for the EHRC (Parken in Davies et.al 2011). http://www.wiserd.ac.uk/research/completed-projects/inequality-in-wales/

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