Pensions deal leads the way for part timers

A deal recently agreed between the Halifax Building Society and the Independent Union of Halifax Staff (IUHS) marks a breakthrough for the access and rights to pensions for UK part-time workers.

Part-time workers have traditionally not been allowed into the same occupational pension schemes as full-time workers, but because there are far more women than men among part-timers the practice was challenged on the grounds of sex discrimination through the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In 1994, the ECJ ruled in a set of linked cases that the practice did amount to sex discrimination. The judgment was not welcomed by the then Conservative Government, so the Trades Union Congress (TUC) advised qualifying individuals that they should register their cases with industrial tribunals. After a number of test cases in the UK tribunals, it was ruled that part-timers who had been denied access to occupational pension schemes could not claim backdated pension rights any further back that two years prior to the ECJ's ruling - that is, 1992. After appeals were turned down, the cases are still waiting to be heard by the House of Lords.

Because this is likely to be a long drawn-out process, the position of the TUC and IUHS is that negotiated settlements granting part-timers backdated access to pension schemes are preferable to legal settlements. However, there has been much employer opposition, which is why the deal at Halifax Building Society is seen as a breakthrough.

The Halifax deal, which may point the way towards a resolution of the deadlocked pension claims of over 60,000 mainly women part-time workers in the UK, will grant backdated pension improvements to 1,300 part-time staff who were unable to join the Halifax pension scheme before 1987. Adjustments using similar principles are also being made for two other groups of staff:

  • women who were married and unable to join the scheme, or who had to leave the scheme on marriage before 1 September 1974; and
  • staff who, due to medical conditions, were unable to join the scheme before 1 January 1984, and who joined as restricted-benefit members.

The agreement will be signed once IUHS members with outstanding tribunal cases have dropped them. IUHS hopes that signing will take place by October 1997.

Ged Nichols, IUHS general secretary, said: "Equal rights to pensions has been one of the last major barriers to securing full employment equality for women. Unions have worked tirelessly for the many women who were wronged and who were destined, along with their dependants to be punished in old age when they would be most vulnerable."

This point was further emphasised by a recent test case, reported in May, involving former part-time employees of Lancashire County Council. The Court of Appeal upheld that BET Catering Services, now part of Rentokil- which had taken over the contract for the council's catering services, and also its former employees - was entitled not to accept women who had been part of the council's scheme into the company's pension scheme because they earned less than GBP 15,000 per annum.

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