Injustice breeds injustice for Glasgow’s equal-pay women

First published by The Herald on 2 July 2019

SUSAN Aitken has plenty of reason to celebrate.

The leader of Glasgow City Council has, after all, just made good on her promise to sort out her city’s equal-pay dispute, with thousands of female workers last week starting to receive their share of a £548 million settlement that was thrashed out after Ms Aitken came to power. It was quite a moment, and one the SNP councillor can justifiably be proud of.

It was a big moment for the women involved too. Though their payslips have told them for years that the work they do is of little consequence, the settlement means the cooks, cleaners and carers on whose backs the city is built are finally being recognised for the contribution they make. The fact that some individual payments will run into many thousands of pounds – many thousands of pounds that should have been in their pockets or in their banks all along – is validation of that.

Only not everyone has cause to celebrate. Indeed, for some of the women involved the settlement is a cause for despair, with the council taking the opportunity of its workers finally having some cash to spare to call in some of their debts.

It should come as no surprise that some women who have spent decades working for discriminatory wages have been unable to make ends meet, with many of the council’s own staff falling into council tax arrears. Though most have been repaying those debts through monthly deductions from their already too-low wages, the council is using their lump-sum payments to recover some lump sums of its own. Around 200 women entitled to a payout will receive no settlement as a result.

There is no question that these women should pay their debts. The council tax fund is, after all, something we all contribute to and all receive some kind of benefit from. But the way this is being handled stinks.

So much of the Glasgow equal-pay battle was about women who had previously had very little agency taking control of their own lives and livelihoods, and the settlement process should honour that. Yet in a move that reeks of inflexible bureaucracy, the council is deciding for some how their back-pay should be spent. It is not a good look. These women have been taken for fools for long enough; the very least the council could do is trust them to handle their own cash.

Worse still, the local authority is forcing its staff to pay what they owe it when it still hasn’t fully paid what it owes them – and in most cases never will.

Sure, Susan Aitken can talk about delivering justice to thousands of people, but the truth is that the equal-pay settlement will never pay every person every penny that they have rightfully earned, with the law stipulating that individual claims can only be backdated for five years.

As a result, only those who joined the equal-pay battle from the start are being paid everything they are owed. The 750 women who filed a claim when the settlement was announced in January are in line for significantly less, while around 2,000 potentially eligible women who never filed a claim will receive nothing. It is a problem that, despite everyone’s best intentions, will remain insurmountable.

On top of that, the settlements currently being paid will only make amends for the past while the women continue to be discriminated against in the present because the discredited pay system that caused the problem in the first place remains in place. Yes, work is underway to replace it, but it will be at least 18 months before that is complete. Expecting anyone to repay their full debt to the council in the meantime is at best tone deaf and at worst crass.

Yet all of this ignores what is perhaps the greatest injustice of all: that the council tax these women are being forced to pay in one fell swoop discriminates against low-earners like them while enabling the richest to continue to prosper.

Designed to eradicate the problems caused by Margaret Thatcher’s hated and hateful poll tax, council tax initially looked like a more equitable scheme precisely because a system of rebates takes account of the disparity in people’s individual economic circumstances. The problem is that for lower earners who still have to pay something, tying council tax to 1991 property values has proved disastrous. Indeed, while property values in affluent areas have soared since the nineties, those in areas where the lowest earners live have barely moved at all, meaning the amount the least well-off pay as a proportion of that value is now significantly higher. The imperative to ease the burden on the poorest by finding ways of making the richest pay proportionally more should be clear for all to see.

The Greens have long argued for council tax to be scrapped in favour of a more progressive regime, with the party’s Scottish leader Patrick Harvie making it a condition of his support for the SNP’s last Budget. Yet while the nationalists pledged as long ago as 2007 to replace council tax with a local income tax, and while both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and finance secretary Derek Mackay continue to declare themselves open to reform, so far no changes have been forthcoming.

The upshot for the Glasgow women is that the financial odds were stacked against them long before they were wilfully underpaid by their employer. Injustice, it seems, breeds injustice. If ever there was an argument for a complete overhaul of the council tax system that is it.

When Glasgow City Council announced that its first equal-pay awards had been made the First Minster congratulated Ms Aitken on her “fantastic” achievement, saying on Twitter that she was “very proud” of her party colleague’s achievement.

Yet unless and until the wider issues impacting the Glasgow women’s finances are dealt with there will remain very little that Ms Aitken, Ms Sturgeon or their party can actually take pride in. Because while higher wages are one thing, if the bills they have to be spent on remain unfair and unmanageable then nobody stands to benefit.