The threat of a multi-million pound compensation bill is hanging over Birmingham City Council amid claims it is discriminating against women workers.

Fifty low-paid employees, including school cooks, clean-ers and care assistants, yesterday became the latest members of staff to launch a group action against the local authority by claiming six years' back pay.

Several hundred female council staff are now seeking redress under the 1970 Equal Pay Act - alleging they are being treated unfairly because, unlike male manual workers, they do not qualify for hefty bonus payments.

Details from a recent pay survey, detailed in The Birmingham Post on Tuesday, showed that unskilled male road workers and labourers are able to earn up to #53,000 a year, in many cases simply for turning up to work.

They are taking advantage of a complex series of bonus, overtime and stand-by payments negotiated by trade unions 15 years ago.

Birmingham law firm Carvers lodged 50 equal pay claims with the council this week.

If the cases are proven, the women could each receive an average #15,000 compensation. In some cases, however, the payments could be as much as #49,000.

Six kitchen staff at Kings Heath primary school are among the 50 claimants.

Tina Kelly, a deputy cook, takes home about #180 a week. She believes that a male council employee doing a similar job would be paid twice as much.

Mrs Kelly said: "What bloke in their right mind is going to work for #9,500 a year?

"It's not an easy job, in fact it's a hard slog.

"All we want is fair and equal pay. The fact is we are being treated like second class citizens and the council should not be allowed to get away with this inequality."

Steve Hopkins, a solicitor at Carvers, said: "There are certain jobs at the council that are the exclusive domain of women. We are talking about cleaners, cooks, care assistants and lunchtime school supervisors.

"They do jobs that are every bit as valuable and difficult as jobs done by men."

Mr Hopkins explained that basic wage rates for men and women employed by the council were broadly similar. But male workers' pay packets were boosted by additional payments of between #90 and #160 a week, which the council described as bonuses but were nothing of the sort.

He added: "Bonuses should be one-off rewards for hitting an agreed target or reflecting extra effort. The bonuses these guys get are paid week-in week-out for simply turning up to do the job. It is not a genuine bonus at all."

Carvers has served an equal pay questionnaire on the council, which asks about the reasons for differences in pay.

Andrew Vernon, an equal pay specialist at Carvers, said: "Remarkably, the council has failed to answer a single question which only goes to show they have something to hide.

"We understand the council will be making offers of back pay to some staff, but it has not said exactly when the offers will be made, the basis upon which they would be calculated or when they will be paid.

"We suspect that any offers made will not be calculated in the manner that would be adopted by an employment tribunal and that they will be significantly less than what the employees are truly entitled to."

Council leaders have pledged to implement a Single Status agreement by April next year, introducing "equal pay for equal work".

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