By Lin Taylor
LONDON, Nov 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Getting support to ask for a pay rise or to fight workplace discrimination will become easier for British women on low incomes with the launch of a free legal aid service, rights groups said on Friday.
Campaign group Fawcett Society and legal charity YESS Law said they started the Equal Pay Advice Service to help women without the means to access legal aid, as workplaces come under greater scrutiny for pay disparities.
"Access to expert legal advice is crucial so that women understand their position and are empowered to raise the issue of equal pay," said Emma Webster, senior solicitor and joint chief executive of YESS Law, which will run the service.
There has been growing debate worldwide over entrenched sexism in the workplace, especially after Britain's public broadcaster BBC revealed that two thirds of its own top earners were men.
The row snowballed into a wider debate over British women's pay, with BBC's former China editor Carrie Gracie quitting in protest over being paid less than her male peers.
BBC's Gracie donated all the 361,000 pounds ($474,281) she received in compensation to help kickstart the legal service.
"The fight for equal pay often pits a lone woman against a very powerful employer," Gracie said in a statement.
"I feel particularly concerned about low-paid women who may not be able to afford legal advice, and I hope support from our new Equal Pay Advice Service will help give them the confidence to pursue their rights," she said.
One in three women in the country do not realise that it is illegal to pay women differently than men for the same work, according to a Friday survey by Fawcett Society and YESS Law.
"In workplaces all over the country, pay discrimination is able to thrive and is more common than people realise because of a culture of pay secrecy which persists," Sam Smethers, head of the Fawcett Society, said in a statement.
"People do not know their basic rights."
The launch of the legal aid service comes ahead of Equal Pay Day on Saturday. Organisers say the day marks when women effectively stop getting paid relative to their male counterparts for the same work over the course of a year.
Men in Britain earn on average 18.4 percent more than women, according to government data published last year.
As in many countries, pay inequality has been a persistent problem despite sex discrimination being outlawed in the 1970s.
Britain's government introduced a law last year forcing all companies with 250 or more workers to publish details of the average gap between men's and women's pay.
($1 = 0.7612 pounds)
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Jason Fields; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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