Trade unions and equality in employment

According to the Equal Opportunities Commission's Equal Pay Task Force, pay discrimination accounts for up to half of the gender pay gap in the UK. Its February 2001 report recommended joint working between trade unions and employers as one means of reducing pay discrimination. This feature discusses the implications of the report for trade unions and highlights recent research into the connection between unionisation and equal opportunities at the workplace.

UK women in full-time work earn 82% of the average hourly pay of male full-time employees (including overtime). In February 2001, the Equal Pay Task Force, set up by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), published its report on UK performance over equal pay (UK0104126F). The report, Just pay, indicates that 25% to 50% of the pay gap is caused by pay discrimination. The Task Force argues that concerted efforts by all the key players will enable this part of the gender pay gap to be reduced by 50% in the next five years and eliminated entirely within eight years. One of its five main recommendations relates to the need for employers and trade unions to know how to implement equal pay.

Recommendations for trade unions

The Task Force states its belief that 'equal pay can best be achieved by employers and trade unions working together in partnership' and that 'partnership [is] potentially a powerful lever'. Among its proposals for the reduction and elimination of the gender pay gap, the Task Force report recommends that trade unions:

  • know how to implement equal pay;
  • take action to raise awareness of the gender pay gap amongst their officers and members;
  • understand how to develop a partnership approach to employers;
  • negotiate successfully for equal pay;
  • assist employers in carrying out equal pay reviews;
  • respond to members with equal pay claims;
  • put equal pay and equal opportunities at the heart of the bargaining agenda; and
  • ensure that the interests of part-time workers are included in all negotiations.

These recommendations draw on Europe-wide research which indicates that the inclusion of equal pay on the collective bargaining agenda prompts wide-ranging changes in employment and work organisation (TN9704201S). The EOC also notes the support that many UK trade unions give to equal pay cases and acknowledges that it has been impressed by the equal pay activity of some individual unions and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Key research findings

The ability of trade unions to improve the position of women at work in the UK is demonstrated in recent research. Analysis of the 1998 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS 98) (UK9811159F) indicates that workplaces with union recognition are almost twice as likely to have a formal written equal opportunities policy than those without. Analysis by Sue Fernie and Helen Gray published in 2000 (Women - what unions can do for you) also indicates that workplaces with recognised trade unions are more than twice as likely than those without to collect statistics on the career progression of men and women, four times as likely to monitor promotions by gender and three times as likely to review selection procedures to identify indirect discrimination.

In addition, in workplaces where all supervisors are given training in people management skills, 20% of those in unionised environments have responsibility for equal opportunities as compared with 12% in non-unionised workplaces. Unionisation is also associated with the provision of 'family-friendly' employment. Unionised workplaces are more likely than non-unionised workplaces to provide flexible working arrangements and/or help with childcare. Taking into account other factors, such as working time and the proportion of women managers, Fernie and Gray conclude that women benefit considerably from working in a unionised environment.

The greater use of equal opportunities policies in unionised organisations also has implications for the economy. WERS 98 provides strong evidence that equal opportunities practices improve performance. Analysis of WERS 98 private sector organisations indicates that the existence of an equal opportunities policy is positively and significantly associated with the level of productivity ('Employee participation and equal opportunities practices: productivity effect and potential complementarities', Virginie Pérotin and Andrew Robinson, British Journal of Industrial Relations, December 2000). This effect becomes stronger when the proportion of women and ethnic minority employees in the workforce gets larger. Women and members of ethnic minorities are often segregated into less productive and more labour-intensive jobs than men and their presence is often negatively and significantly associated with productivity. This research indicates that the positive association between equal opportunities policies and productivity offsets the negative relationship between the proportion of employees from discriminated-against groups and establishment productivity.


The EOC Task Force's recommendation that unions work with employers to tackle the gender pay gap reinforces the 'partnership' agenda (UK9906108F) and emphasises the continuing importance of unions in the workplace. In addition, EOC been impressed by union activities in pursuing equal pay and research findings indicate that unions benefit working women. The EOC's comments and the research findings are useful recruitment ammunition for unions which are looking to increase membership and representation amongst women (UK9908124F).

It is imperative for unions to recruit more women as female employment growth has accounted for 44% of total employment growth over the past three years. The spring 2000 Labour Force Survey shows that 12.5 million women (aged 16 ) are in employment, which represents 45% of all workers. Women in employment in the UK is at its highest recorded level but only 28% of women workers are trade union members (TN0103201U).

Research indicates that working at unionised workplaces can have considerable benefits for women in employment. At a local level, unionised workplaces offer more to women workers in respect of equal opportunities and family-friendly employment practices. Unions are also pursuing the equal opportunities agenda at a national level. Unions are continuing to challenge weak 'family-friendly' legislation (UK0102115F) and the TUC has played a key role in ensuring the extension of statutory parental leave to cover all working parents with children under five (UK0105128N). (Anne McBride, Manchester School of Management, UMIST)

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