Council faces compensation bill of up to £350,000 for dinner ladies on top of £560,000 previously awarded
The House of Lords has today ruled in favour of 36 school dinner ladies who claimed they were victimised by St Helens Borough Council in Merseyside after they brought equal pay claims against the local authority. The women’s fight for justice was backed throughout by their trade union the GMB.
In a damning verdict, the five law lords unanimously backed the women in their claims against the council for sex discrimination and victimisation. The result means that a tribunal will now assess the award due to the women which could be up to £10,000 each.
The women, along with 473 others, claimed equal pay with male road sweepers in 1998. The majority accepted the terms of a settlement offered by the council but the remainder took their claim to an employment tribunal and won. The tribunal awarded them £560,000 for their equal pay claim.
Just two months before their claims were to be heard a senior council official sent two letters, one to the women and the other to all the catering staff, claiming that if they continued their claims and were successful, there would be “a severe impact on all staff”. It was, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury said, “effectively a threat”. The letter warned of redundancies and said there was a danger that the claimants might deprive children of school dinners.
The letter sent to all catering staff resulted in, according to Lord Hope of Craighead, “some odium” for the claimants from colleagues, who feared for their jobs and their ability to pay for their children’s lunches.
This was, the Law Lords said, “a classic case of blaming the victims”.
The Lords said that the original ET had been right to conclude that the women had been victimised. They said the letter was “intimidating” and said that the indirect threat it contained was just as likely to deter an employee from enforcing her claim as a direct one.
Noting that equal pay claimants are “particularly vulnerable to repro ach”, the Lords said that “however anxious the employers may be to settle, they should not exploit that vulnerability in their attempts to do so”.
Commenting on behalf of the 36 claimants, GMB National Secretary for Public Services, Brian Strutton said: “All they did was to exercise their legal rights as low paid women workers to claim equal pay for the jobs they do for St Helens and for the community. And yet they were victimised by their employer as a result. They were made to feel they would be personally responsible for the council’s claimed financial difficulties if they were successful. It was extremely distressing to be told by their employer that their action might lead to cuts, to children going hungry at lunchtime, to colleagues losing their jobs or not receiving pay rises.
Frankly it felt like blackmail and it took a lot of courage by them to keep going. St Helens acted wrongly towards these women and now they’ll have to pay up for it. The fact that GMB took these women’s equal pay claims to employment tribunal in the firs t p lace should have told the Council that we would not stand by and let our members be victimised. We are proud to represent our women members in the pursuit of equal pay with the support of Thompsons, our lawyers, and the support of the EOC, the CRE and the DRC. We are very pleased with the outcome and hope that it serves as a warning to other employers”.
Michelle Cronin, the women’s solicitor at Thompsons said: “As Baroness Hale says in today’s judgement, women workers have suffered injustice in the labour market for centuries. There is still an unacceptable gender pay gap. The Equal Pay Act 1970 provides a mechanism by which women workers can establish that their work is “equivalent” to that of male colleagues and the right to claim equal pay. That the victims of the injustice of unequal pay are then victimised for pursuing that right is disgraceful.
Today’s judgement should make clear once and for all to employers what their response to equal pay claims should be. They can negotiate with the trade unions and their solicitors by all means to avoid litigation for all parties, but they cannot intimidate individuals and expect to get away with it.”