Workplace inequality

The financial cost to employers of unfair practices, and the extent of the ethnic, disabled and gender pay gaps were brought to the fore last week after a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference held by equality advisory organisation Committed 2 Equality (C2E).

The event was held following comments by Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) – to be absorbed into the Commission for Equality and Human Rights today – in favour of an amnesty on all new equal pay claims for three years as the system was overloaded.

Recent figures on equal pay make for depressing reading. C2E says in 2006 women earned on average £100 week less than men. Janet Lakhani, C2E chief executive, said at the conference fringe event that the ethnic employment gap was “stuck” at 15%, and the disabled employment gap was “stuck” at 26%. Improvements had been made in reducing the lone parent gap, which was down 3% on last year to 21%.

Despite the problems, Lakhani says she was pleased with the comments made by newly-appointed minister for equality, Barbara Follett.

“I was pleased with what was said about the government getting more involved with the regional development agencies to provide support for SMEs on equality,” Lakhani told Personnel Today ITALS. “The minister also indicated there would be some toughening up of obligations on employers in the discrimination law review green paper.”

Lakhani disagreed with Jenny Watson’s call for a three-year moratorium on pay claims.

“I understand why the EOC called for it. But that alone will not make much difference. It has to be supported by good practices, which must be checked and monitored regularly.”

Lakhani said that so far most of the focus and funding from government has been on helping those willing to work, whereas “employers need to be willing to employ”.

The Conservative Party has weighed into the debate with an equal pay campaign proposing compulsory pay audits for employers found guilty of discrimination. This was met with some derision from employers’ lobby group the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) which said audits would “do little to tackle the underlying causes of the pay gap”, which, according to the CBI, include poor quality career guidance.

Lakhani said the knock-on effects of unfair practices are more than just financial. “The reputation of a company involved in these practices is at stake, as is morale. Then there’s the downtime if you’re involved in a tribunal.”

C2E has a Diversity Assured Programme, which it said makes a marked difference to inequality in the workplace. This programme was developed following high level discussions with employers within the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank. It is urging more organisations to take on this programme and gain Diversity Assured accreditations.

“One year on from its official introduction into some organisations, we found a 13% increase in ethnic employment, and 15% increase in female employment. These are impressive statistics for us,” said Lakhani.

Lakhani said the government should lead by example, and ensure its employees were not subject unfair practices. “At the moment the government as an employer is not doing what it professes other employers should do. It should regularly check its own policies and practices. These are not being scrutinised.”

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