by a PCSU member
Following a hearing on 24 and 25 February, an employment tribunal in Manchester has ruled that the dress code imposed on staff in Jobcentre Plus in June 2002 is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act. The case was brought by Matthew Thompson, an administration assistant at Stockport social security office, with the backing of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU).
In reaching a unanimous decision, the tribunal stated: "But for the applicant's sex, would he have been forced to wear a collar and tie? The answer to that question must be 'No'. Therefore he was treated less favourably." Crucially for women members, the danger that management would sidestep the decision by 'levelling up' is dealt with as the judgement also says: "If the only mandatory item had been for a woman to wear, say, a skirt, would that be discriminatory? We believe it would."
Inevitably, some sections of the press have presented the issue as simply one of whether men should wear ties. The union's campaign, however, has always been about challenging the imposition without notice of a draconian dress code which breaches our human rights and discriminates between men and women. Terry Moran, Northwest director of Jobcentre Plus, when challenged why the code applied to backroom staff-and even casuals in warehouses who were forced to wear collars and ties under their overalls-admitted that in fact the policy had nothing to do with presenting a professional image but was rather about "creating a single culture for the new organisation', i.e., imposing the bullying, anti-union culture established by Employment Service (ES) management on ex-Benefits Agency staff. Instead, as a result of this decision, the ES dress code introduced in 1993 has effectively been deemed unlawful.
Some of management's stranger diktats were also exposed in the hearing, much to the amusement of the assembled hacks. The union's barrister quoted from an internal document giving guidance to line managers on applying the code: "Doc Marten's: OK, but not if worn by a woman with a summer dress".
It is welcome that the tribunal has ruled in our favour. However, it is likely that the Department of Work and Pensions will appeal rather than negotiate a new dress policy. PCSU general secretary Mark Serwotka has said that in these circumstances the union will push ahead with the other 39 cases which have already been lodged. That PCSU is taking on the employer is largely due to the efforts of individual officers and reps. The question is, why did the Group Executive Committee fail to organise a ballot for mass non-cooperation as they were instructed to do by the last Group Conference in May 2002? Their lack of leadership has led to a situation where we have been forced to rely on individual legal actions rather than on the collective strength of industrial action.