A call for legislation to tackle class inequality in the workplace must be approached cautiously because of the legal and logistical issues involved, according to experts.
The TUC has made headlines by suggesting the government put social and economic background on a similar footing to other protected characteristics. Its new report, Building working class power, includes proposals that would make it compulsory for employers to report class pay gaps, as well as making discrimination on the basis of class illegal.
It also called for a legal duty on public bodies to tackle class and income inequality as a priority.
“This is an interesting suggestion, but it’s difficult to see how it would work in practice,” said Joanne Moseley, professional support lawyer at Irwin Mitchell. She echoed the concerns of other experts about the level of data collection required to quantify employees’ social background – and, crucially, the lack of a concrete definition of different social classes.
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“Without this it will be impossible to judge whether working class people are in fact discriminated against,” Moseley added.
The TUC claimed action was needed because employees in typically ‘working class’ professions earned lower incomes than others, while working class individuals in all professions faced a pay gap.
Its analysis said graduates with parents in professional or managerial jobs were more than twice as likely as their working class peers to begin work on a high salary, regardless of the degree they attained.
The data, obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, revealed that 12 per cent of graduates whose parents were in higher managerial or professional occupations when they were 14 were earning more than £30,000 within six months of graduating, compared with 5 per cent of those whose parents were in what it called ‘routine’ occupations.
“It's going to be a question of how you define social class,” said Mark Lafferty, solicitor at employment law specialists DPH Legal. “The most common way this is defined is by reference to educational background or by parental educational background.”
He pointed out that some employers already collected this information, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which monitors whether members attended fee-paying schools or were the first in their family to go to university, for the purposes of measuring diversity.
But Lafferty added that, in common with most other diversity information, there would be no strict obligation on employees to disclose this information – though he did not believe this would make the TUC’s proposals unfeasible, as the concept of data collection around protected characteristics had been adopted relatively quickly by businesses.
“We think there needs to be rapid action on this,” said Sue Coe, the TUC’s senior policy officer for equality and strategy. “There is some really useful work that has been done by government that could be used for workforce monitoring. They came up with a set of criteria that they recommended for use, which included parental education level, whether the person themselves went to a private, selective or comprehensive school and parents' occupation.
“We want to move that on because we know that transparency has a particular power in the workplace.”
The issue of social mobility has become increasingly important in recent years. Elite universities have come under pressure to ensure their practices do not deter working class applicants, while the legal sector and management consulting are among the professions that have acted to measure and improve social diversity. Meanwhile, broader efforts have focused on the role of unpaid internships in perpetuating class bias, with proposals to ban the practice.
Social mobility charities welcomed the TUC’s proposals for “shining a light on the class pay gap”. John Craven, chief executive of upReach, told People Management that “legislation would help focus minds, helping tackle issues such as unconscious bias, micro-aggressions and other forms of indirect discrimination”.
While he accepted that “there is currently no consensus on how best to measure socio-economic disadvantage”, he said work had already begun in many sectors to understand which indicators should be used for any future data collection efforts.
“Workplace inequality remains a hot button topic throughout the world of HR and continues to garner extensive scrutiny, with social class potentially playing a key role in this ongoing issue,” added Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula.
“Employers should be ready to explore if certain groups are being afforded more opportunities than others within their organisations, and take steps to identify why this could be.”