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Building working class power

How to address class inequality today
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Tackling class discrimination
People from working class backgrounds still earn less than those from middle class backgrounds, even when they have the same qualifications and do the same type of job. That’s why we need new measures to tackle class discrimination in the workplace.

Even when those from working-class backgrounds attend university, they still enter the job market earning less than those from middle-class and private-school backgrounds.

TUC analysis of data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that graduates with parents in ‘professional and routine’ jobs are more than twice as likely as working-class graduates to start on a high salary, no matter what degree level they attain.

The table below shows the percentage of employed graduates in different salary bands at 6 months following graduation. It looks at how these differ depending on the occupation of the graduate’s highest-earning parent when they were 14. These figures are for those who graduated in the 2016/17 academic year.

It clearly shows that those with parents who worked in managerial and professional occupations are more likely to enter high-earning jobs after graduation than those with parents in semi-routine or routine occupations. A graduate from a professional background is twice as likely to be in a job earning above £30,000 per year than someone whose parents worked in a routine or semi-routine occupation.

Those with parents in professional occupations are also much more likely than those from working-class backgrounds to be in a job earning above £25,000 per year.

Percentage of employed graduates in different salary bands at 6 months following graduation, by highest-earning parent’s occupation at 14

Percentage of employed graduates in different salary bands at 6 months
Percentage of employed graduates in different salary bands at 6 months

Chart 6: Percentage of employed graduates who are earning above £30k six months after graduating

Chart 6: Percentage of employed graduates who are earning above £30k six months after graduating
Source: TUC analysis of HESA data

Private school is also a factor here. Graduates who went to private school are over twice as likely than those who went to state school to be earning above £30,000 (18 per cent, compared to 9 per cent).

Privately educated graduates are also much less likely than their state-educated peers to be earning below £20,000 per year. 41 per cent of employed graduates who went to state school are earning below £20,000 six months after graduating. This drops to 28 per cent among privately educated graduates.

These findings echo research from the government’s own social mobility commission, which also found persistent disadvantage for those from working class backgrounds. It showed that:

  • There are persistent barriers for those from working class backgrounds wanting to enter professional jobs: Those from better off backgrounds are almost 80 per cent more likely to be in a professional job than their working-class peers, and people from working class backgrounds earn 24 per cent less a year than those from professional backgrounds. The Social Mobility commission previously concluded that unpaid internships played a role in helping to exclude working class people from professional and other roles.[21] 
  • Even when those from working class backgrounds do enter professional jobs they earn less: Even when those from working class backgrounds enter professional occupations, they earn on average 17 per cent less than their more privileged colleagues.
  • Women from a working-class background face a double disadvantage when entering a professional job -earning
  • People from working class backgrounds are more likely to be paid below the rate of the real Living Wage than those from professional backgrounds (27 compared to 17 per cent).[22]

Researchers have shown that some of the ways that class discrimination operates in the workplace can be subtle. It can affect what type of knowledge is valued, who gets mentored or opportunities to get on, or who gets invited to networking events which may give opportunities for promotion.[23


A joined-up approach

Although any one of the three methods we propose could have a positive impact on combating discrimination and disadvantage on the grounds of class, the three proposals would be best implemented together as they are mutually supportive in tackling the different forms of discrimination experienced by working class people.

  • Socio-economic duty: this tackles systemic discrimination –structural discrimination stemming from public policy decisions at national, regional and local level
    For example: the greater impacts of austerity on working-class households
  • Class pay gap reporting: this tackles institutional discrimination – the failure of employers to have workplace policies that improve awareness of socio-economic disadvantage and prevent class-based discrimination
    For example: failing to have a recruitment strategy that is intended to promote applications from candidates with a wide variety of backgrounds or only having links with schools from affluent areas
  • Making discrimination on the basis of class unlawful,: this tackles Individual discrimination
    For example: recruitment processes and decisions that favour candidates from privileged backgrounds

1. A socio-economic duty

The Equality Act 2010 set out a socio-economic duty on public bodies. This was aimed at ensuring that all government departments and key public bodies placed tackling inequality at the heart of their decision making and that the “persistent inequality of social class, your family background or where you were born” was addressed in a systematic way[24].

However, this part of the Equality Act has not been enacted by successive UK governments.

The power of a positive duty on public bodies is important in that organisations are required to justify and explain their decisions openly. The duty would not only promote the transparency and accountability of decision-makers but would mean that failure to deliver against the duty could result in legal challenge.

Recently there has been progress in this area, with the Scottish Government enacting the socio economic duty through  the introduction of its Fairer Scotland Duty[25] in  April 2018. The Welsh Government has also announced its intention to introduce the duty soon.  A range of public bodies in England, mainly local authorities, have worked to incorporate the socio-economic duty into their approach to developing policy. Most notable among these is Newcastle City Council who have developed strategic policy as if the socio-economic duty was in force[26].

In its latest report, the Social Mobility Commission has called for the enactment of the socio-economic duty, a call that has been echoed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a range of civil society organisations. 

2. A duty on employers to report class pay gaps

The TUC has repeatedly stressed the importance of transparency in tackling discrimination in the workplace. We have seen clear evidence in the first year of gender pay gap reporting of the impact of mandatory reporting of pay data. Within weeks of the reporting deadline, all relevant employers had complied with their duty to publish pay data. This contrasted with fewer than ten employers reporting pay gaps under voluntary arrangements. Although evidence of the impact of the gender pay gap reporting regulations on outcomes for women workers has yet to be seen, it is clear that the mandatory reporting regulations have raised both the profile of this issue and the urgency with which employers are approaching it. 

The introduction of the regulations also sparked a widespread public debate on women’s pay and the inequalities which underpinned this. This has not only served to raise the public profile of the issue but has energised people to act. Recent research has shown that around three-quarters of those in workplaces required to publish gender pay gap figures were willing to take action to help their employers tackle these gaps[27].

Although we are still waiting for the Government’s response to the consultation on this issue, there is widespread support for the introduction of ethnicity pay gap reporting, with plans to incorporate transparency on parental policies into the existing pay gap portal currently being consulted on. We appear, therefore, to be moving towards an approach where employers will be required to report multiple sources of information relating to pay gaps. We recommend that class pay gaps are reported alongside gender pay gaps to avoid the unnecessary complication of multiple deadlines. Within this wider policy context, class pay gap reporting, where inequality intersects with and underpins disadvantage experienced by other groups, could provide a greater insight into intersectional inequality.

The mandatory reporting of pay gap information relating to class pay gaps would also assist in:

·         highlighting class discrimination as an issue which needs to be addressed

·         prompting widespread workforce monitoring on this ground

·         prompting action to identify and address specific institutional barriers experienced by working class people entering, progressing and remaining in work

·         pulling together disparate activity on this issue

·         assisting employers to benchmark their gaps.

Currently, in gender pay reporting there is no mandatory requirement for an action plan or narrative to be published. Analysis by the Equality and Human Rights Commission[28] has shown limited levels of voluntary compliance, with only around one in five employers having published a timebound action plan, with around half producing a narrative, many of which contained very little detail or clear commitments.

We have consistently argued that without mandating employers to put such plans in place the legislation is unlikely to have significant impacts on employers’ pay gaps. We would therefore be seeking mandatory production of action plans to close any gaps and  as part of reporting, employers should be required to produce a narrative explaining how the figures were arrived at, and to make an evidence-based statement that sets out what they consider to be the main causes of their class pay gap.

Workforce monitoring

The only way in which class pay gap reporting will translate into required meaningful change is through sustained activity which is focused on the root causes of these pay gaps, informed by monitoring using consistent categories. The use of consistent categories will ensure that measures can be compared across employers and by an employer over time.  We recommend that employers use the four areas outlined in existing Government guidance, which are already used by a range of organisations, to measure and monitor class background in the workplace. These are parental qualifications,  parental  occupation,  type  of  school  attended  and  eligibility  for  free  school  meals. Data should be collected from new and existing workers, interns, apprentices and job applicants.

Existing civil service guidance has been developed for reporting on these qualifications. However, we feel that the full range of questions outlined in existing civil service guidance[29] may be too detailed for national use. They could be limited to four and still capture the information required to give employers a clear picture of where barriers and bias are thwarting the life chances of working-class staff and allow measurement of progress in addressing these.

A range of employers are already collecting data in these areas, with the numbers collecting socio-economic background data, both for new entrants and for current employees, increasing[30].

3. Protecting against class based discrimination

For the first three decades of anti-discrimination law, race and sex remained the only grounds protected by the law. Since 1995 the number of groups who are protected has grown significantly to the current list of nine set out in the Equality Act 2010.[31] The UK situation has been mirrored globally, with a trend towards increasing expansion in response to the growing understanding of the complexity of discrimination.

There has been a significant move across Europe towards extending the mandate of equality legislation to cover socio-economic status.  An overview of European equality legislation showed that in 2016 legislation in twenty of the thirty-five European countries included in the study provided protection against discrimination on a ground related to socio-economic status[32].

However in UK law socio-economic status remains outside the groups that are explicitly covered by domestic equality legislation, despite the fact that it is arguably one of the fastest-growing type of inequality in the UK today. The continued exclusion of socio-economic disadvantage from the characteristics that are protected is increasingly at odds with people’s lived experiences of discrimination.

Economic inequality is not only the cause of discrimination but also the consequence. People from a range of groups already protected under the Equality Act 2010 would particularly benefit from additional protections around socio economic disadvantage.

The inclusion of a new protected group could protect people from being discriminated against in a range of ways. 

  • Direct discrimination e.g. failure to shortlist a candidate based on their postcode being in a less affluent area,
  • Indirect discrimination (most cases would be likely to fall under this) – e.g. unpaid internship listed as an essential requirement for a job
  • Harassment - e.g. a manager creating a humiliating and offensive environment by makes disparaging and offensive comments about an employee’s ability based on negative stereotypes of working-class people.
  • Victimisation - e.g. treating an individual unfairly because they have complained about an act of discrimination.

Inclusion in the Equality Act 2010 as a protected characteristic would mean that employers could undertake positive action both in terms of steps such as training and information provision and ‘tie break’ recruitment situations.

Multiple discrimination

In order to ensure that a new protected characteristic could be used most effectively to address the disadvantage experienced by those groups that are already covered by the Act, it would be helpful for it to be introduced alongside a provision for multiple discrimination. There is already an unenacted provision in the Equality Act 2010 relating to dual discrimination, however the reality of intersectional discrimination is such that it often involves more than two protected characteristics. It would therefore be more useful in challenging intersectional discrimination if individuals could take cases forward which incorporate the combined nature of the discrimination that they face.

[21] Social Mobility Commission (2017) ‘Unpaid internships are damaging to social mobility’ available at

[22] Social Mobility Commission (2019) State of the nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain available at:

[23] Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison (2019) The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, Bristol University Press.

[24]  Government Equalities Office (2010) The Equality Bill: Duty to reduce socio-economic inequalities: a guide, available at

[26] Just Fair (2018), Tackling Socio-economic Inequalities Locally, available at

[28] Equality and Human Rights Commission , (2018), Closing the Gender Pay Gap, available at…

[30]  Social Mobility Foundation (2018), Social Mobility Employer Index 2018: Key Findings, available at…

[31] These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity,

race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation

[32] European Commission (2016) “A comparative analysis of non-discrimination law in Europe 2015”, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union

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