Brits Now Have Six Years To Sue Over Unequal Pay

Britain's Supreme Court has ruled that anyone who believed they were paid less than colleagues of the opposite sex can sue in civil courts, where the statute of limitations is six years. Until now Britons, like Americans, could only file discrimination cases within six months. The initial case involved 174 former "dinner ladies" and other city employees in Birmingham — but it may have reverberations at private and public sector workplaces.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, to a fight in the U.K. to equalize pay between men and women. Today, a group of women in Birmingham is celebrating a landmark legal victory in the British Supreme Court. Vicki Barker tells us what happened.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: The women were employed by the city of Birmingham in such traditionally female roles as cooks, cleaners and in-home caregivers. In 2007 and 2008, the city paid out thousands in compensation to women employees who'd argued they'd been unfairly denied bonuses routinely given to staff in such traditionally male-dominated jobs as street cleaners, garbage collectors and gravediggers. But the city argued the payouts only applied to current employees or those who'd left less than six months before. Today, Britain's Supreme Court ruled the women can try to claim those bonuses in civil courts and not through U.K. employment tribunals. That means a six-year statute of limitations applies. Lawyer George Benson represented the 174 plaintiffs.

GEORGE BENSON: Previously, when they've tried to make an equal pay claim, they've been told that they're out of time because the time limit was six months. This judgment means that they can wait six years to bring their claim. If they find out within that period, they can get the compensation that they're owed.

BARKER: Among those now eligible, retirees Pam Saunders and Mary Rooch. They say they were stunned when they learned the men had been getting bonuses often doubling the standard city pay of $16,000 to $24,000 a year.

PAM SAUNDERS: Disgusting. I mean, be honest, we were stabbed in the back, weren't we? Truthfully we were, weren't we, Mary?

MARY ROOCH: Yeah, we were, we were.

SAUNDERS: I mean...

ROOCH: Just took for granted and...

SAUNDERS: Yeah.

BARKER: The case was particularly unusual, says Vera Baird, because English working-class women rarely have the financial or emotional resources to wage that kind of legal battle. Baird, a jurist and activist, served in the previous Labour Party government.

VERA BAIRD: These are women who normally you would expect not to fight back, cooks and cleaners with huge family responsibilities, and it is tremendous that they have got organized and they have gone forward with a case like this.

BARKER: Theoretically, today's ruling means that any Britons who feel they've been paid less because of their gender at any time in the past six years are now eligible to sue. Greg Campbell is a U.K. employment lawyer.

GREG CAMPBELL: I suspect some law firms will go through their Rolodex and see, have we now got a richer vein that we can mine for potential claims?

BARKER: But today's ruling is unlikely to open a floodgate of litigation by individuals. Unlike U.K. employment tribunals, where risk is shared, anyone who loses a case in a civil court in Britain has to pay their adversary's legal bills. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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