Birmingham City Council is facing an equal pay bill of up to £15 million after a landmark legal ruling found that 174 women workers could make backdated claims for discrimination.
The Supreme Court decided that the care workers, dinner ladies, cleaners and other women workers could make equal pay claims.
Previous legal advice was that the claim was only valid if made within six months of retirement or leaving the council. Some former full time care workers could be awarded as much as £100,000.
The equal pay issue arose after it emerged that many women council workers, such as carers and cooks, although on the same pay grade as male refuse collectors, road workers, grave diggers or street cleaners, were not entitled to the same bonuses and paid much less as a result.
Thousands of claims were submitted in 2007-08, but former workers were rejected.
Legal firm Leigh Day & Co, representing the women, say the first 174 claims, known collectively as Abdulla and others, are worth about £2 million, and that it has 1,000 more former Birmingham City Council staff waiting to submit claims.
Women workers at other councils, including 380 from Wolverhampton City Council, are also lining up claims.
Partner Chris Benson described the ruling as “historic” and represents the most radical reform to equal pay since the original legislation was introduced in 1970.
He said: “This is a great day for equality and for all those women massively underpaid over many years within public and private organisations.
“Birmingham council should now do the decent thing and settle the claims.
“They saved money by underpaying ex-workers for so many years, and so should now stop wasting taxpayers’ money fighting court cases they cannot win.”
He added that the ruling could have ramifications for not only the public sector, but private sector companies where it can be argued women get a poorer deal – such as supermarkets.
A spokesman for the city council said it would review the ruling and consider its reaction, adding: “In the original claim, Abdulla v. Birmingham City Council, 174 claimants brought equal pay claims against the council and issued them in the High Court as they were out of time for issuing claims in the employment tribunal.
“Equal pay litigation until now has always been pursued in employment tribunals as these tribunals are experienced and specifically trained in dealing with such claims.
"In addition, there are very limited situations where costs follow the losing party, whereas in the civil court costs almost always follow the losing party.
“The council is reviewing this judgement in detail before considering its options going forward and will be making no further comment at this stage.”
The equal pay legislation, which is still ongoing, is believed to have cost the city council about £300 million. The Government has loaned councils money to meet the claims.
One of the claimants, retired home care worker Pam Saunders, 66, from Bartley Green, said: “I don’t think they were working harder, but they got paid more. I was annoyed when I found out.”
She worked for the council for 30 years and explained that the work involved travelling across the city and looking after the elderly in their homes. I loved the job, but it was hard work.”
Mrs Saunders retired in 2005, and two years later found out that former colleagues were being given equal pay cheques, but was initially told that she could not claim, but that changed when she heard legal firm Leigh Day & Co was taking cases.
She said: “It came out of the blue.”
Her friend Joan Clulow, a 71-year-old retired part-time home help from Bartley Green has been battling with cancer under her eye for eight years – as a result of which she was forced to retire in 2005.
She said: “There was cooking, cleaning, washing and dressing people. It was hard work but we were dedicated, we didn’t refuse anything.”
She said she is angry towards the council, not only over the original bonus culture which rewarded male workers, but also for fighting against the claims of former staff.
She said: “It has been a hard fight. It’s a lovely feeling to have finally won.”
Although she does not yet know how much her claim is worth, she hopes to treat her family to a holiday and look after her husband, who has dementia and her mother who suffers with Alzheimer’s Disease. “I keep going for them really,” she added.