Forty five years ago 187 of the women who worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham, as sewing machinists, went to Whitehall in London to protest against a pay structure which clearly favoured men. The women, despite the difficult test they were required to pass in order to be employed as a sewing machinist, were classed as unskilled by the company and thus received a lower wage. In order to end the strike the Employment Secretary at the time, Barbara Castle, agreed with the women that they would receive 92% of the male rate opposed to the current 85%. However it was not until they went on strike again, sixteen years later, that they were recognised as skilled workers.
The 1968 strike is a significant aspect of British industrial history because it paved the way for the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which was introduced two years after the strike. It is now recognised that if men and women are doing the same job, they should be paid the same rate of pay. This concept is now captured in the Equality Act 2010 which provides that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. In every contract there is now an "equality clause" automatically implied which means that if a women does not receive the same pay for doing equal work to a man in the same employment then (i) any term of the woman's contract that is, or becomes, less favourable than "a term of a similar kind" in the man's contract is modified so that it is not less favourable; and (ii) the woman's contract is modified to include any beneficial term which is in the man's contract but not in hers.
Section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 contains a power for the Government to require large employers to publish information about their gender pay gap. To date the Coalition have indicated that they wish to work with businesses in order to develop a voluntary approach to gender pay gap reporting and that they will not commence amend or repeal section 78. However, on 25 April 2013 the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 gave the Government the power to grant Employment Tribunals the power to order pay audits where an employer is found guilty of gender discrimination in relation to contractual or non-contractual pay matters. A consultation on this point started on 23 May 2013 and will run until 18 July 2014 with the Government intending to introduce the Regulations in 2014.
Things have come a very long way since the Dagenham strike although with the gender pay gap still being in the region of 10% (i.e. the difference between men's and women's earnings as a percentage of men's earnings) there is still much work to be done. Giving Employment Tribunals the power to order pay audits is a further step in the right direction.