Birmingham City Council loses equal pay appeal bid

Claimant Mary Roche told the BBC's Phil Mackie that she "couldn't believe" she was being underpaid

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A total of 174 former Birmingham City Council workers can go ahead with compensation claims over missed bonuses after the council lost a court appeal.

The workers, mainly women who worked in traditionally-female roles, such as cooks, cleaners and care staff, won a ruling over lower pay last November.

The Supreme Court rejected the council's argument the claims should have been made within six months of staff leaving their jobs.

They now have six years to make claims.

Lawyers for the group called the result a "landmark" judgement and said it could have "huge implications" for potentially "thousands" of other workers.

They said the 174 in the group, named the Abdulla Group after the woman whose name was at the top of the list, could be entitled to about £2m between them.

The lawyers said up to another 1,000 former city council employees could also submit claims.

The city council said it would be reviewing the judgement "in detail" before considering its options.

The authority had argued the women should have submitted their claims through an employment tribunal within a six-month time limit of leaving their jobs.

Male bonuses

Wednesday's ruling means the women can now seek compensation through the civil courts system.

The equal pay fight

  • 27 April 2010: About 5,000 mainly female council staff, including cleaners, cooks, care assistants and caretakers win their case for equal pay at an employment tribunal
  • 9 June 2010: The council announces plans to appeal against the equal pay ruling
  • 9 May 2011: The council's appeal is dismissed at the Employment Appeal Tribunal
  • 29 November 2011: A group of 174 female workers win a Court of Appeal decision on equal pay claims
  • 10 January 2012: The council lodges an application for permission to appeal with the Supreme Court against the decision on equal pay claims
  • 24 October 2012: The council is denied permission to appeal against the decision for low-paid female workers to seek compensation

The city council had challenged November's ruling in the Supreme Court but a panel of five judges dismissed the authority's appeal.

The court heard the women were among workers who had been denied bonuses which had been given to staff in traditionally male-dominated jobs such as refuse collectors, street cleaners, road workers and grave diggers.

For example, the annual salary of a female Manual Grade 2 worker was £11,127, while the equivalent male salary was £30,599.

The court was told that during 2007 and 2008, tens of thousands of pounds of compensation was given out to female council employees who were still working at the council.

More payments were made to women who had recently left who had taken cases to an employment tribunal.

However, these did not apply to anyone who had left the council more than six months before.

'Long fight'

The Abdulla Group members' claims date back to 2010 and the six years they have to claim the compensation has been put back to that date.

That means anyone in the group who was still working at the council from 2004 could be entitled to a payout.

Mary Roche, from Yardley, who worked as a home help for the city council for 27 years, said she "could not believe it" when she heard about the bonuses they had missed.


Andrew Hambler, senior lecturer in employment law, Wolverhampton University

It's significant as it confirms equal pay claims can be made in the county court over a six-year period - 12 times the time employment tribunals allow. It offers the opportunity for thousands more people to claim.

Never before have equal pay claims been made in the county court. These claimants are likely to win their cases. It could be spectacularly costly for Birmingham, running into many millions.

There's a huge unfairness behind this. Through collective bargaining, unions in the 70s and 80s gained many benefits for their mainly male members.

There was no-one pushing in the same way for cleaners, cooks and care workers. Unions have since flip-flopped and become much more aware of equal pay for all.

The way forward for Birmingham City Council is to negotiate out-of-court settlements and to move swiftly. The longer it drags on, more former employees will see the publicity and come forward.

It will have a big impact on Birmingham and will also affect other councils. It will also make a lot money for lawyers.

Joan Clulow, 71, from Bartley Green, worked for the city council for 25 years, also as a home help, and said she felt "absolutely gutted" when she heard about the bonuses that had been paid to others.

She said: "The way [the council] treated us is abominable.

"We did everything [in our jobs] - we washed, dressed, cooked, cleaned, got pensions, everything... We were dedicated to looking after those people."

Chris Benson, partner at law firm Leigh Day and Co, which represented the women, said: "For these women it is the end of a long fight.

"They were underpaid for a long time.

"The salaries were the same - the women did earn between £10,000 and £15,000 a year while the men got the same - but on top of that they were offered bonuses of up to £15,000 that the women weren't entitled to and never received.

"The women just want to get paid fairly for the work that they did."

In a statement, the city council said this type of legal challenge had always previously been pursued in employment tribunals because they were "experienced and specifically trained in dealing with such claims".

It said holding cases in civil courts instead of tribunals meant potentially higher costs for the losing party. It added it would not comment further at present.

A government spokesman said: "We are fully committed to equality in the workplace.

"Local government pay is a devolved matter for local councils and they will want to consider this legal ruling carefully."

Sarah Ozanne, an employment specialist at law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, said: "This is a significant development in current equal pay laws, and leaves employers open to the threat of claims long after the employment relationship has ended."

Employment lawyer Lisa Mayhew of Berwin Leighton Paisner, said the decision could have "a significant impact on the City" by making female employees more willing to bring equal pay claims to the High Court.

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