The NHS faces paying out billions of pounds in compensation and back pay if equal pay claims by a group of female nurses and ancillary staff are successful.
In the case of Wilson & Others v Carlisle Hospitals NHS Trust, a panel of expert witnesses has found that work carried out by the women was of equal value to that of male workers.
If the employment tribunal dealing with the 1,400 claims follows its lead, the trust could be forced to pay almost £100m in back pay, according to Unison, which is backing the case. It could also open the floodgates to millions of other claims from NHS nurses.
The news follows fresh evidence from the Equal Opportunities Commission that the equal pay legislation is failing to close the pay gap between men and women. Indeed, the gap between full-time male and female workers has widened in the past year: women earn just 81.2 per cent of full-time male earnings, compared to 81.5 per cent in 2001. Part-time workers earn 58.9 per cent of the male full-time average hourly wage, compared to 58.7 per cent in 2001.
Low pay estimates released last month reveal how the national minimum wage legislation is also failing female workers. Some 180,000 part-time jobs done by women pay less than the minimum wage - compared to 50,000 part-time jobs done by men.
"It's not enough to recognise the problem, companies have to take action if we are to see an improvement in next year's pay figures," said EOC chair Julie Mellor.
The EOC is urging organisations to get their pay systems in order ahead of the introduction next year of statutory equal pay questionnaires which will make it far easier for employees to bring claims, and harder for employers to defend them.
The EOC has developed an equal pay 'kit' to help employers carry out pay reviews and has also developed guidance for software producers developing IT packages for assessing pay systems.