One of the hottest UK employment law topics of recent times is that of equal pay. Recent press coverage has focussed on claims that the disparity in pay levels is such that on average women effectively work for free from 9 November each year when compared to the remuneration packages of their male colleagues.

A new and unwitting entrant to this debate is the Celtic Manor resort in South Wales, which recently advertised two vacancies in its ‘Christmas Kingdom’ attraction, one for the role of Father Christmas and the second to play Mrs Claus. So far, all very inclusive.

However, Father Christmas is paid £12 per hour, while his “wife” will only get £6.70, spot on the national minimum and the same as the elves, reports the Mail Online in outraged tones.

The Celtic Manor explained the difference by stating that Father Christmas would play the “lead role” and would be the “star attraction“. Mrs Claus, it said, had “more of a supporting role” (unspecified, but perhaps clearing up after Santa, or making tea?). How very traditional, and precisely one of the reasons the Equal Pay Act was first introduced in 1970.

Of course, it is entirely possible that there is good reason for the gap in pay such that they do not qualify as ‘like work’ or ‘work of equal value’. Then equal pay is not required by law.  The difference between the roles was what Celtic Manor appeared to be getting at when it said that “the difference in pay reflects only the more skilled requirements and responsibilities of the Santa role and is in no way indicative of a gender pay divide at Christmas Kingdom.  

Sometimes in law, it is a good idea not to overstretch your defence. What exactly are the “more skilled requirements and responsibilities” applicable to the role of Father Christmas? None of the traditional Santa’s grotto tasks seem to warrant any distinction – laughing heartily, dressing up, handing out gift-wrapped tat of some description, etc.  To the extent that commercial Santas or Mrs Santas are still allowed or willing to have children sit on their knee, that hardly seems like a “skilled” requirement or responsibility either (especially since that implies that Mrs Claus could not be trusted with the children, not an ideal background to the job), nor does wearing a beard.

A Trip Advisor review last week may shed some light on the issue “The visit included…. decorating cookies with Mrs Claus [no gender stereotyping here, boys and girls] and a fantastic visit to the man himself. He seemed very funny, was in no rush and involved the parents as well”.  The advertisement for the Santa role requires him to have “acting ability” and to be “entertaining, jovial and happy at all times”.  Faced with hordes of grasping chocolate-covered toddlers (the Manor expects 6,000 visitors to its Santa this year) that is indeed quite a skill.  However, no indication is given that Mrs Claus is entitled by contrast to be unfriendly and morose “in her kitchen” (the phrase in the advertisement for the Christmas Kingdom attraction – NB, not their kitchen or the kitchen).  So, while a skill, it is not a differentiating skill.

The sad thing is that the Manor was not obliged to have a Mrs Claus at all. It was clearly just trying to do the right gender-aware thing.  We may never know how this one works out or how the Tribunal might apply the equal pay rules to non-existent characters (sorry, kids).  Nonetheless, it is easy to conclude from a distance that with visitors to the grotto forecast in such numbers and entry starting at a whopping £12.50 per tiny head, paying Mrs C the same per hour would have been a small but much more effective gesture.