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Sex and the professional girl

Proposals for a Sex Equality Act could have a major impact on employers.

Roughly 1M people work in the construction industry, an estimated one in seven of whom are women. As a result, many employers in the construction industry have relatively little experience of equal pay legislation and the Sex Discrimination Act. However, if the proposals put forward by the Equal Opportunities Commission are enacted by the Government, all employers in the construction industry will have to re-examine their working arrangements.

The EOC proposes replacement of the current Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts with a new Sex Equality Act.

One of the main changes is a duty on all employers to monitor the gender, job title or grade, and rates of pay of their employees at least once every 12 months. This information would have to be given to the employees, employee representatives and to the EOC if requested by them.

As if this were not enough, any contractor seeking a contract or financial aid from central or local government would also be required to show they complied with the obligation to monitor. This is thought to be an effective method of ensuring men and women do receive equal pay for work of equal value.

It seems clear that those who do not comply will be refused contracts/financial aid by Government. What is not spelt out clearly is what happens when employers do comply, despite showing apparently gender-based disparities in pay.

Providing detailed information to employees and employee representatives will lead to an increased awareness of disparities in pay.

Consequently there will be an increase in equal pay claims. In addition to the management problems, employers will have to be far more rigorous in the setting of pay and benefits. Employers will need to be ready to justify the different remuneration packages for different jobs.

These difficulties will be compounded by the proposal that the burden of proof of sex discrimination be shifted on to the employer. It is intended that where a potential case of unequal treatment arises, the employer will have a duty to establish that there has been no unequal treatment. In other words, in all but the most obvious cases, employers (and not the complainant) will have to prove their case.

The proposals place equal pay at the top of the agenda and place significant extra duties on employers, who will be reluctant to risk being precluded from contracting with or receiving funding from any government body.

Employers should definitely keep a weather eye open, and consider the impact on their workforce if the EOC's proposals are adopted by the Government.

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