Hardly a week goes by without the ongoing issue of equal pay hitting the headlines for one reason or another. Whether you live in the North or South makes no difference as the latest fiascos in Leeds and Brighton demonstrate. Refuse workers, otherwise known as 'bin men', have gone on strike, leaving the streets of the aforementioned cities strewn with trash, after councils failed to reach agreements with unions over equal pay disputes. The workers in Leeds initially faced a salary drop of £4,491 to bring their salaries in line with so called 'dinner ladies' but recently they rejected the council's offer of an annual pay cut of just £231.
Emma Whiting, partner at Addleshaw Goddard law firm, warns that things can only get worse.
"Given recent headlines on the extent of the gender pay gap across the whole of UK industry, much work clearly needs to be done to remove this inequality. Any employer that has not already taken steps to identify whether potential gender pay disparity exists within their business should do so sooner rather than later. Doing nothing is not an option as it will only store up problems for the future."
Carrying out an equal pay audit is one of the most basic and fundamental measures an employer can take to avoid claims, but there can be a risk that the audit might reveal a history of gender pay disparity, as in the case of Leeds City Council (see box below).
Whiting explains: "The risk is substantial, as not only will employers be required to equalise pay for the future, but also disadvantaged employees can claim for up to six years' back pay. And that's not the end of the problem. Most pay reviews will also result in some employees having their pay reduced (because they have historically been overpaid), and that is unlikely to go down well with those staff."
Employment legislation could also have an impact as the Equality Bill (see box opposite) contains a reserve power that requires large organisations to publish gender pay differences annually.
There are, however, a number of other immediate, short-term steps employers can take to try and avoid equal pay claims.
Emma Bartlett, partner at law firm Speechly Bircham, advises implementing diversity training for all employees who have responsibility for decision making in the areas of recruitment, terms of employment, training, pay reviews, p