‘We’ve been taken for granted for too long’: equal pay strikes by women spread across Scotland

<span>Fiona O’Brien, a home carer in Renfrewshire and a GMB rep, joins striking women workers at a rally for equal pay outside Glasgow City Chambers last week.</span><span>Photograph: James Chapelard</span>
Fiona O’Brien, a home carer in Renfrewshire and a GMB rep, joins striking women workers at a rally for equal pay outside Glasgow City Chambers last week.Photograph: James Chapelard

Hundreds of women have gone on strike in Scotland as three more councils face claims over equal pay.

Almost 500 workers walked out of their council roles in Falkirk, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire in protest at a pay grading system which they say is outdated and pays women less than comparable male-dominated jobs.

Their action follows a strike by more than 8,000 female carers, caterers and cleaners in Glasgow, in 2018, which resulted in a payout of around £500m from Glasgow council, a bill it is yet to settle fully. It was the biggest equal pay strike in history in the UK.

Workers in similar jobs in Dundee, Perth and Kinross, Angus, Fife and Moray are now in ongoing disputes over equal pay.

The GMB union, which represents many of the women bringing claims, said local authorities across Scotland risk being bankrupted. GMB Scotland secretary Louise Gilmour said Scotland’s councils were approaching equal pay claims “like the Titanic approaching the iceberg”. “Councillors have their heads in the sand and executives have their fingers in their ears, but these equal pay claims will come, will be won and will need to be settled.

“We know local authorities are struggling to make ends meet and we know why. But to suggest women workers are somehow making things worse by asking for money they are owed … is as dishonest as it is disgraceful.”

In England, Birmingham city council last year said it was unable to balance its books due, in part, to equal pay claims. The GMB has ongoing equal pay disputes with a number of other councils including Coventry and Cumberland.

Gilmour called on the Scottish government to create a new specialist body to settle equal pay claims nationwide and enforce payments.

Fiona O’Brien, a home carer in Renfrewshire since 2016 and a GMB rep, said she took strike action “as a last resort because enough is enough”.

“For a long time, we’ve been told: ‘you’ll never go on strike, you care too much, you’ll never stand up for yourselves’,” she said. “But we’ve had enough now – we’ve been taken for granted for too long.”

She said her role is different to what was advertised and more complex than the grade it is paid at, including administering medications, caring for people with dementia and mental illness, using specialist equipment and physically moving people with restricted mobility.

“It’s been inspirational to see us all coming together and standing up for what’s right and fair,” she said. “This could potentially change the road for a lot of people working in care and could also bring more people into the sector.”

In the event of a successful equal pay claim, higher pay grades could be retrospectively applied, allowing workers to claim up to five years of back pay and costing councils millions of pounds, the GMB said.

The union said it expects to see pay reviews in at least a dozen more Scottish local authorities.

A spokesperson for Falkirk Health and Social Care Partnership said: “Falkirk council is committed to upholding equal pay, and continues to engage with GMB. We will seek to minimise disruption for those in need of our care and support at home services.”

A spokesperson for West Dunbartonshire council said: “We are committed to fair pay for home carers and, following a thorough and robust job evaluation process, the pay of a typical home carer has recently risen by at least £2,500 per annum through regrading of the role.”

A Renfrewshire Health and Social Care Partnership spokesperson said: “Negotiations between the Health and Social Care Partnership with all trade unions continue. A further offer was presented to all three trade unions, and Unison and Unite have paused industrial action as they consider this renewed offer. Unfortunately, GMB is continuing with industrial action following a consultative ballot with its members.”

Renfrewshire council did not respond to the Observer’s request for comment.