A third of workers don’t know pay discrimination is illegal

employment law pay discrimination

A third of women and men in work don’t realise that pay discrimination is illegal, according to new research by The Fawcett Society.

The research, launched ahead of Equal Pay Day (on 10 November), coincides with further campaigns on the gender pay gap, such as the Women’s Equality Party out-of-office campaign.

According to the research from the Fawcett Society six out of ten (61%) workers say they would be uncomfortable asking a colleague how much they earn. The same number are unaware that they have a legal right to have conversations with colleagues about pay if they think they are being discriminated against because of their gender. And three in ten workers, says the study, believe their contracts ban people from talking to each other about pay, despite this being legally unenforceable.

“In workplaces all over the country, pay discrimination is able to thrive and is more common than people realise because of the culture of pay secrecy,” says Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. “People do not know their basic rights and do not know what their colleagues earn.”

The charity also found that half of workers say their managers would respond negatively to more openness. Thirty-eight per cent of men believe a person does not have a legal right to ask about another’s pay, compared with 26% of women. The survey of 1,209 people was released as the Fawcett Society launched an Equal Pay Advice Service to help those on low incomes challenge suspected pay discrimination. In partnership with employment law firm YESS Law.

So, what can be done to tackle pay discrimination? We asked leading employment solicitors for their thoughts …

Charlie Thompson, Associate at Harbottle & Lewis says:

“There are plenty of situations where an employer pays one employee more than another and it does not amount to unlawful discrimination. It is not a simple case of “no smoke without fire”. Wherever there is a disparity, the important question is “why”.

“Often employers shroud their pay structures in secrecy, even when they in fact have a good story to tell and are on the right side of the law. They can then inadvertently generate low morale, resentment and suspicion of discrimination amongst their staff.  

“So, there is an opportunity for employers to reduce risk and improve employee relations by owning this issue, and being upfront with their staff about how, at an organisational level, they make their decisions relating to pay, and what structures they have in place to avoid pay discrimination – especially ahead of compulsory disclosure of numbers which might appear damaging.”

Catherine Greig, Director of Greig Employment Law, says:

“People understand job titles, and job descriptions, and that there can be lawful factors justifying pay differences (such as seniority, experience, qualifications, greater responsibility, market forces, etc). However, I think that people struggle with the concept of “equal work”.

“For example, I came across a situation a few years ago where a long serving female employee found out that a newly recruited junior male employee was earning substantially more than her. Meanwhile out in the marketplace, the skills were in demand and a premium was needed to recruit candidates. The long serving employee raised the issue and obtained a salary increase, but working relationships suffered. In an ideal world, the employer would have been regularly reviewing all salaries to identify any anomalies and correcting them if necessary.”

David Evans, Director of Open Plan Law says:

“If the government is serious at addressing this gender pay inequality, then there is an obvious role for remuneration committees and Boards to play in tackling this – by having responsibility beyond setting executive pay and reporting statistical analysis respectively, to developing an ambitious plan to remedy any gender pay gap and pay discrimination within their wider workforce.”

Tom Moyes, Partner at Blacks Solicitors LLP says:

“The Equality Act 2010 prohibits pay discrimination if it is due to a protected characteristic. To prevent pay discrimination from occurring in the workplace, it would be beneficial if the employer included an Equality policy in their staff handbook – this would set out their views for allowing equality between individuals in relation to pay. Furthermore, employers should review the pay of their workforce relatively regularly, to ensure that no inadvertent pay discrimination has taken place.”

Ben Power, senior partner of Springhouse Solicitors says:

“Getting the conversation started for instance at on #EqualPayDay is a good start. But employers will usually want to pay as little as they can at the point of recruitment and negotiate employee by employee. The resulting hotch-potch of salaries can make it very complicated to apply the legislation and bring a successful claim in anything but the biggest and most structured of organisations, and even here comparing like with like can be next to impossible. As with the Working Time Regulations, simple rules can throw up the most complicated law, but this should not stop us being aware of our rights and exercising them.”

Beth Bearder, Associate Employment & HR at Flint Bishop Solicitors, says:

“Employers need to change attitudes. It’s vital to promote knowledge of gender pay within the workforce and make it plain that it is illegal to pay a man more money than a woman for the same work. A simple email, or update on the employer’s intranet will help promote knowledge and encourage employees to raise any concerns they may have. Employers can also ensure that pay discrimination is addressed in the Diversity and Equality policy, and routinely analyse, create and publish a gender pay gap / pay discrimination report (regardless of the size of the organisation) to identify if there are any inconsistencies in gender pay.”

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