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Amid reports at the end of last year that the gender pay gap is rising across Europe and recent news that over 400 female Asda employees have launched an equal pay claim against the supermarket, there comes a reminder that male workers can also be successful in bringing equal pay claims.

Equal pay for equal work

The Equality Act 2010 – and before it the Equal Pay Act 1970 – implements into UK law the principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work, as set out in Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Anyone employed under a contract personally to do work is entitled to enjoy contractual terms that are as favourable as those of a comparator of the opposite gender in the “same employment”, if they are employed in equal work (that is, like work, work rated as equivalent or work of equal value).

The 1970 legislation was introduced to ensure that women were not paid less than their male counterparts because of their sex. As such, it referred to the claimant in an equal pay claim as a woman, and her comparator as a man. Although in practice this still reflects the majority of claims, the principles apply equally in reverse and a man can bring an equal pay claim based on a comparison with a female colleague.

Swansea Metropolitan University

The reversed application of the equal pay principle was recently tested, when over 20 male support staff originally employed by Swansea Metropolitan University brought an equal pay claim in the Employment Tribunal after discovering that female colleagues on the same pay grade were earning more. The group of men counted among them plumbers and caretakers, while their female comparators included secretaries and office workers.

The claim initially arose from the implementation of the National Pay Modernisation Review in 2006/2007, a review agreed between the higher education sector and trade unions at national level. The review consisted of a job evaluation exercise and a drive to harmonise terms and conditions for all UK higher education staff, including the adoption of a standard 37-hour week. At the time of the review, the claimants had been on minimum 45-hour-a-week contracts. When terms and conditions were standardised, fearing the drop in hours would cause problems, university management said they would guarantee the men the extra eight hours but class it as overtime pay. But when the new system was implemented, the men realised their hourly rate was less than female workers on the same pay scale.

The group of men presented their original claim to Swansea Metropolitan University, demanding £736,000 in compensation. Subsequently, Swansea Met merged with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) in August 2013.

Cardiff Employment Tribunal

After initially arguing that the pay difference was not due to gender but because of changes to the men’s contracts, UWTSD’s legal team told an Employment Tribunal in Cardiff that they would no longer be contesting the claim and agreed to pay out to the claimants and five more men on the same grade. The claimants’ solicitor expects that the claimants could share a pay out in the region of £500,000.

Equal pay claims: consequences for employers

While these men are thought to be among the biggest group of male workers to have launched equal pay legal action in Great Britain to date, this case serves as a reminder to employers of the risks associated with equal pay issues in the workplace and the fact that successful group cases can not only be costly to the respondent institution but also open the floodgates for claims in other organisations.

For more information on how equal pay legislation might affect your business or to discuss potential equal pay claims affecting your organisation, contact our Employment Law team or call us on 0117 904 6000.