General Election 2017: Time for Equality
Much of the post-referendum debate in the UK has been on the single market and freedom of movement. Not much attention has been given to the gender pay gap, or racial inequality as a possible factor in shaping this gap. The recent study published by the Fawcett Society suggests a complex picture of gender pay gap inequality, and notes that the forthcoming general election is an opportunity to finally tackle inequality in the UK.
In March 2017, the Fawcett Society, the UK’s largest charity campaigning for women’s rights, published a briefing on the gender pay gap by ethnicity in Britain. The analysis has shown that the gender pay gap is shaped by racial inequality, with some minority ethnic groups making strides while pay for others lags behind.
The Fawcett Society looked at pay data from the 1990s until the 2010s. The research suggests that women from almost every minority ethnic group experience a pay gap with white British men. No progress has been observed particularly for Black African women with a full-time pay gap of 21.4% in the 1990s and 19.6% today.
The analysis revealed real inequalities also for woman of most ethnic minority groups who experience a gender pay gap when compared with men of the same ethnicity. In particular, it is said that Indian women experience the biggest pay gap with men in their ethnic group at 16.1%, compared to 5.5%, with equivalent gaps between Pakistani and Bangladeshi men and women.
With such visible inequalities on display, what will each of the political parties do if they win the forthcoming general election?
The Conservatives would extend current pay gap reporting requirements. This means that businesses over a certain size would be obliged to publish breakdowns of pay by ethnicity, age and level of seniority. The Conservatives would also look into ways to make civil service recruitment more diverse, in terms of race, gender and social class.
The Liberal Democrats would extend reporting requirements for all large companies, requiring them to monitor and publish data not just on gender, but also ethnicity, sexual orientation, employment levels and pay gaps between the highest and lowest paid. A civil enforcement system would be in place to ensure compliance with gender pay gap reporting. The Liberal Democrats have additionally vowed to bring an extra one million women into the workforce by 2025, and to introduce name blind recruitment into the civil service.
Labour also proposes to introduce a civil enforcement system in respect of gender pay gap reporting. They want to ensure ‘all workers have fair access to employment and promotion opportunities and are treated fairly at work’. They also want to introduce a gender audit on all policies and legislation to determine their impact on women before implementation.
When will companies show their figures?
Companies will be required to publish their figures by April 2018. If the companies fail to comply by this final deadline, they will be contacted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Those companies that are found to have a gender pay gap will be encouraged to publish an action plan alongside the figures detailing the steps they plan to take to address the problem. In the meantime, if employees are concerned that their company is not complying or does not have an action plan, they are advised to speak with their HR department.
Will Brexit shrink or widen the pay gap?
With Brexit very much the focus of debate as we approach the general election, the evidence suggests that the developments on equal pay in the UK had been profoundly driven by Europe. Women’s rights in the UK are underpinned by EU law. The government is free to give more rights, but EU rights provide a legal minimum for all women. Asked what Brexit could mean for UK equality laws, Aileen McColgan, human rights professor at Kings College London, said “it would depend on the government of the day”, and added: “there would be no underpinning or demand for maintenance of the current provisions, so… it is very troubling as the whole thing could be knocked away”.
According to the Fawcett Society, the rights that could be at risk include the right to equal pay for work of equal value. The charity called on the new government to protect and strengthen those rights, not allow them to be diminished as a result of Brexit.
With a number of proposals adopted by the two parties in their manifestos, the general election in June may be an opportunity for the government to tackle inequality in the UK. In a statement, Theresa May has stated that closing the gender pay gap is a policy priority for a new government, and “the fact that different ethnic groups are being paid less for doing the same jobs is an injustice which cannot be allowed in 21st century Britain.”
With a pay gap reporting system in place, companies will need to adapt their cultures to a more gender, and ethnic, balanced world. However, the risk remains that without minimum EU standards to abide by, the government could in future try to “lower” the bar.
Agnes Biel, paralegal