THOUSANDS of female workers are in line for a share of millions of pounds after a group of Scottish school employees won a Supreme Court victory in their equal pay fight against a local authority.
Five justices in London announced a ruling yesterday in favour of 251 classroom assistants, support for learning assistants and nursery nurses employed by Dumfries and Galloway Council.
The issue in their appeal was whether they satisfied the threshold conditions set out under the Equal Pay Act 1970 to bring claims alleging they are employed under less favourable terms and conditions than certain male employees of the council who do work of equal value.
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The Supreme Court unanimously allowed their appeal and restored the decision of an employment tribunal permitting the claims to be brought.
It is now for the tribunal to decide whether the women's work is of equal value to the male "com- parators" and, if so, whether there is an explanation other than the difference in sex for the difference between their terms and conditions.
The Unison union described the ruling as "historic" and said it was "worth millions of pounds for members". General secretary Dave Prentis said after the ruling: "I am delighted the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of our women members. It is a shame, though, they have had to go through this process and endure a seven-year wait just to get equal pay.
"Dumfries and Galloway Council should take immediate steps to correct their pay and I urge other councils to follow suit. We have more than 2000 other cases on hold, waiting for this judgment."
Langlands school classroom assistant Karen Korus, 53, one of the 251 appellants, said: "This has been a very long fight but we knew all along we should be able to compare our work with the men, who sometimes did work in schools, but were not based there like us."
Unison Scottish secretary Mike Kirby congratulated the Dumfries women and said their success will immediately help nearly 2000 members in Scotland with similar cases as well as having important wider implications. He said: "This is a landmark case in equal pay across the UK. Unison's determination to fight for our members has successfully defended the intentions of the Equal Pay Act"
Dumfries and Galloway Council said it would "now consider its position in response to the Supreme Court judgment".
In bringing their equal pay claims, the women, who are employed during school term times only, had to establish certain male employees are "in the same employment" as they are, even though they are employed on different terms and conditions and at different establishments.
Their claims were launched in 2006 and are primarily based on the allegation their work is of "equal value" to that of the men.
Ruling in the women's favour yesterday, Lady Hale, who has just been appointed as the new deputy president of the Supreme Court, said the object of the legislation "is to secure equality of treatment, not only for the same work, but also for work rated as equivalent or assessed by the experts to be of equal value".
She said: "It stands to reason, therefore, some very different jobs which are not or cannot be carried out in the same workplaces may nevertheless be rated as equivalent or assessed as having equal value."
Lady Hale said: "In this case it is quite clear the difference in treatment between the claimants and their comparators is attributable to a single source, namely the local authority which employs them and which is in a position to put right the discrepancy if required to do so."
Alastair Pringle, Scotland director for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which intervened in the appeal, said: "The Supreme Court judgment confirms Dumfries and Galloway Council's attempt to limit the circumstances in which women can compare their work and pay with that of their male colleagues is inconsistent with the fundamental right to equal pay for equal work."
He said the decision "keeps the door open for thousands of other women who find themselves doing equal work as their male colleagues in the same employment, but who are paid less".