An in-depth survey of EPSU affiliates on the gender pay gap in public services helps make sense of a often confusing picture. Fighting for equal pay had long been a priority for EPSU, and is a particularly relevant issue to public services in many European countries due to the high percentage of women employed in the sector.
Thirty-six unions from nineteen countries responded to the survey. The lack of coherent and generalised data collection by authorities and employers in many countries is one of the first problems highlighted by the responses. There is also widespread concern about the effects of involuntarily part-time work, outsourcing and the imposition of flexible working on the pay gap, as well as discrimination due to parental leave and in training provision. Work that is traditionally viewed as ‘female’, such as cleaning, catering and care, is still less valued, and consequently less well-paid, that work that is traditionally dominated by men.
One such case of this type of structural barrier is that of British affiliate UNISON which in 2013 won a ruling in the supreme court against a Scottish local authority, Dumfries and Galloway Council, following a seven-year battle. The union was successful in its claim that women working as classroom assistants could compare their pay with men working as groundsmen, refuse collectors, drivers and leisure attendants.. The men received bonuses; the women did not. The ruling not only guaranteed equal treatment for the 251 women in the local authority’s schools, but also benefited around 2,000 women in schools across Scotland.
This is far from the only success story of union action getting results on equal pay. In many countries collective bargaining is a key tool to ensure that employers take action to reduce the pay gap. A strategy common to several unions has been to negotiate higher pay rises for the lowest paid, who are disproportionately women. In 2008, German affiliate Ver.di was able to negotiate an agreement that covers 1.3 million employees in national and local government that included a €50 flat-rate pay rise. The most recent pay deal also includes a €90 minimum increase that will go some way to closing the pay gap.
Norwegian unions Delta and YS also emphasise the importance of higher increases for the bottom grades in central government. Other unions, such as AOA in Denmark and GMB in the UK, cite the deletion of the lowest pay grades as concrete gains that have improved pay for women in the public sector.
The report looks at the impact of public spending cuts on the gender pay gap. It is clear that austerity has severely damaged women’s pay and employment in many places – in Greece 28,600 women in the public service lost their jobs between July 2010 and February 2013, while their pay has fallen by 40%. Although in some countries pay freezes have hit higher-paid workers harder, which may have resulted in a temporary reduction in the pay gap, this trend may be reversed by cuts to equal opportunities programmes intended to improve women´s access to higher paid jobs. The most recent figures cited in the report would appear to show that for the EU as a whole the process of closing the gender pay gap has at least stalled with no change between 2010 and 2011. Of the 27 countries reporting in 10 the overall gender pay gap has increased, and in five there has been no change.
If there is one clear conclusion to be draw it is that in this time of public service cuts and austerity the struggle to close the gender pay gap is as pertinent as ever and is very much on the agenda of public service unions across Europe.