The Trades Union Congress (TUC) recently published its recommendations for eliminating class-based bias in society. All employers will be required to tackle class discrimination if the TUC's new proposals are enacted.

Why is this a problem?

The TUC's report points to a number of statistics demonstrating that working-class individuals suffer disadvantage in the employment sphere.

Its analysis shows that people from working-class backgrounds still earn less than those from middle-class backgrounds, even when they have the same qualifications and do the same type of job. Those with parents in professional occupations are also much more likely than those from working-class backgrounds to be in a job earning more than £25,000 per year.

The effect of schooling is significant, with privately educated individuals more likely to get into the highest paying graduate jobs. The TUC says that 18% of privately educated graduates earn more than £30,000 six months after entering the workforce, compared with just 9% of state school educated graduates. At the other end of the spectrum, 41% of state school educated graduates earn below £20,000 six months after graduating, compared with just 28% of privately educated graduates.

What is 'class'?

The TUC points to various different methods of defining class.

The first method to define class is occupation. The TUC's report points to the Office for National Statistics' National Statistics Socio-economic Classification, which is based on an individual's occupation. Categories range from high managerial occupations to long-term unemployed. The TUC says that routine and semi-routine roles are often seen as working-class jobs, and that these roles account for around 20% of the working population.

However, research in 2015 found that when people are asked to self-identify, 60% believe they are working class. This might not be because of the nature of their own occupation, but rather the type of work their parents did. Of those in managerial roles, 47% say that they are working class.

The TUC also points to a 2015 BBC class survey, which identified seven different classes based on economic, social and cultural factors. In addition, the TUC says that, in its work on class and public services, it looked mainly at those earning below average income.

The TUC believes that each of these measures highlights something about class, and that "rather than ignite a lengthy debate about definitions, we want to focus on how to tackle the persistent class inequality that still exists in Britain today".

What are the proposals?

The TUC made three proposals:

  • Make discrimination based on class unlawful, just like race, sex and disability.
  • Introduce a legal duty on public bodies to prioritise tackling class and income inequality.
  • Introduce compulsory class pay gap reporting for all employers.

Class as a protected characteristic

The TUC suggests that class should be added to the Equality Act 2010 as another protected characteristic, making it unlawful for employers to discriminate due to someone's class. This would cover cases of direct discrimination – for example, not hiring someone because they 'sound posh' or harassment based on negative stereotypes of working-class people. It would also cover subtler cases of indirect discrimination – for example, offering internships only on an unpaid basis (which puts poorer individuals at a disadvantage).

Class pay gap reporting

Transparency and reporting requirements are currently popular ways of trying to solve difficult problems. This can be seen in the new CEO pay ratio reporting regime, the publication of age demographic statistics suggested by the Women and Equalities Committee and (of course) in gender pay gap reporting. Ethnicity pay reporting will likely be the next big reporting requirement for employers to deal with, but when and in what form remains to be seen (for further details please see "Ethnicity pay reporting: why it's not that simple"). Any insights that might come from ethnicity pay reporting may also reveal something about class; ethnicity and socio-economic disadvantage are strongly correlated.

The TUC wants to go further and introduce pay gap reporting specifically focused on class. It argues that this would make employers think hard about the representation of different classes in their workplace and prompt action to tackle any barriers that might exist, as with gender pay gap reporting.


The United Kingdom would not be trailblazing if it introduced class as a protected characteristic. One of the protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights covers discrimination on grounds of "social origin" and "property, birth or other status". However, in those countries that have brought this into their laws by signing and ratifying this section of the convention (the United Kingdom has done neither), claims of this nature are rare. This could be explained by those countries having less divided and class-based cultures than the United Kingdom, but another factor is probably that the laws do not work without a proper definition of 'social origin'.

The United Kingdom recently grappled with a similar definition problem when it consulted on making caste discrimination unlawful. Despite acknowledging that caste discrimination was a problem, the government ultimately rejected the idea of making it a protected characteristic, partly because of divisions over what the concept of caste was, and what specifically it captured, even among those who are familiar with this nuanced concept.

Trying to frame class as a protected characteristic could prove equally difficult.

A self-definition approach could be adopted for class pay gap reporting purposes. This is how gender pay gap reporting works. There is no requirement to make an objective determination of what someone's gender is. The self-definition approach is also likely to be taken for ethnicity pay reporting (and of course ethnicity is also often complex and arguably difficult to define). Employees could be asked to select their class from a discrete list of options, and employers would then calculate the data on that basis. However, although it may be possible to calculate class pay gaps from this sort of data, these gaps might ultimately highlight other interesting aspects about class. For example, a company CEO who defines themselves as coming from a working-class background would significantly distort the figures.

Aside from the arguments about definition, there will be other arguments about policy. When the government looked into legislating for caste discrimination in 2018, it became uneasy about creating a law which could result in banning discrimination based on class. This was a real concern because the concept of caste may include aspects of social status. The government concluded that legislating for caste was divisive and that the same would be true for legislating for class discrimination more widely. It remains to be seen whether future administrations take the same view. With the Labour Party likely to call for the introduction of Section 1 of the Equality Act in its next manifesto, it will be interesting to see whether it goes further into this controversial topic and agrees to adopt the TUC's recommendations in full.

This article was first published by the International Law Office, a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. Register for a free subscription.