European court undermines effort to close wage gap

// 3 October 2006

A UK court ruling that employers cannot pay male workers more than their female counterparts because they have not had to take career breaks has been overturned by the European Court of Justice.

As EUObserver reports, UK health inspector Bernadette Cadman had convinced the UK courts that the Health and Safety Executive was wrong to pay her male co-workers doing the same job \x8013,000 more because they had chalked up more experience, while maternity leave and childcare duties had stopped her serving the same amount of time in the office.

“Recourse to the criterion of length of service is appropriate to attain the legitimate objective of rewarding experience acquired which enables the worker to perform his duties better,” the court stated in the ruling.

“Where a job classification system based on an evaluation of the work to be carried out is used in determining pay, there is no need to show that an individual worker has acquired experience during the relevant period, which has enabled him to perform his duties better,” it said.

I must say this is a tricky question. On the one hand, the ECJ’s ruling clearly violates the sacred principle of “equal pay for equal work”. If Cadman was performing at the same level as her co-workers, paying them a whopping £8,700 more is patently unfair.

Does addition experience of the job really equate to better performance? I suspect that is largely to do with the nature of the job and the nature of the individual.

To further cloud the issue, if Cadman had taken a sabbatical to travel the world, or go back to university, it would be patently unfair to pay her the same as another worker who started at the same time and didn’t take the time out.

So this comes down to whether or not having children is a special case. In a purely meritocratic world, where school runs were really divided equally regardless of gender, the ECJ’s ruling would be justifiable.

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where women are disadvantaged in the workplace on two counts. First, women must cope with the aftermath of thousands of years of discrimination and lingering assumptions that we are just not as good as a man doing the same job. And secondly, women are still expected to become the primary carer to any children. They give up their jobs while their male partners continue with their careers, just because that’s what people do in the popular mind and for simple economic reasons: a he is still likely to be paid more than a she.

Simply taking off the unavoidable few months necessary to give birth is often enough to shunt women onto the infamous mummy track. They often come back to demotions and pay cuts. So even if a male partner does take over full responsibility or partial responsibility for childcare, women are still disincentivised.

And if they cannot even mount a legal challenge when it becomes demonstrably clear that their peers who are doing exactly the same job are being paid thousands of pounds more, what tools do they have to counteract this?

This ruling comes only days after the government boosted provision for maternity leave. But if women cannot be sure of returning to work on an equal footing to people doing exactly the same job as them, then these positive moves will barely chip away at the wage gap.

Meanwhile, the Guardian compares delivery room provisions in Sweden and Niger, the best and worst places in the world to give birth.

It’s 10am on a stiflingly hot Monday morning and I am in a delivery room with one of the unluckiest mothers on the planet. She is Dahara Laouali, and at the moment she is lying on a narrow, dusty hospital trolley pushing her baby into the world. Although the birth is imminent – Insa, the midwife, says that with the next contraction the head will be out – Dahara is making no noise at all. This is Niger, where the tradition is that mothers labour in silence. It is hard keeping quiet in the throes of childbirth: but almost everything is hard for mothers in Niger.

The stark difference between Niger and Sweden is made clear with a few shocking statistics. One in seven women in Niger die during their reproductive years, while in Sweden the figure is one in 29,800.

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