Who is to blame for Birmingham City Council’s dire financial situation? The council has long been struggling to pay its bills and effectively declared itself bankrupt yesterday. In a brief statement, a spokesperson for the Labour-run council pointed the finger at ‘equal pay claims’ as the cause of the problem, explaining:
The council is still in a position where it must fund the equal pay liability that has accrued to date (in the region of £650m to £760m), but it does not have the resources to do so.
Europe’s largest local authority has indeed paid a high price for its gender pay gap. After a 2012 legal case found in favour of 174 of the city’s women, the council has so far doled out £1.1billion. But while the figures quoted in yesterday’s announcement might be true, it seems unfair to pin the blame for the council’s economic mess on Birmingham’s lowest paid women.
The pay claim hinged on the fact that women who worked for the council in traditionally female jobs such as cooks, cleaners and carers, received the same basic salary as men on the same pay grade but who were employed in traditionally male jobs such as street cleaners, grave diggers and refuse collectors. However, only staff in the ‘male’ jobs received a bonus. These unequal pay arrangements were no hangover from a pre-feminist era.
Now, I am often the first to argue that news of gender pay gaps can be overstated. But it is hard to see what happened in Birmingham – and up to 20 other councils – as anything other than a clear cut case of sexist discrimination. And this sexism is made all the more galling by Birmingham council’s fondness for displaying its progressive credentials.
Back in 2020, council officials invited local residents to suggest names for new roads in the Perry Barr area of the city.