Thousands of Asda supermarket workers have won a major victory at the Supreme Court in their battle for equal pay.
The court upheld an earlier court ruling that lower-paid shop staff, who are mostly women, can compare themselves with higher paid warehouse workers, who are mostly men.
The judge stressed the ruling did not mean the 44,000 claimants had won the right to equal pay.
However, they are now free to take further action.
The GMB union, which has members involved in the case, called it “amazing news and a massive victory for Asda’s predominantly women shop floor workforce”.
“Asda has wasted money on lawyers’ bills chasing a lost cause, losing appeal after appeal, while tens of thousands of retail workers remain out of pocket,” said Susan Harris, the GMB’s legal director.
“We now call on Asda to sit down with us to reach agreement on the back pay owed to our members – which could run to hundreds of millions of pounds.”
Wendy Arundale, who worked for Asda for 32 years, said: “I loved my job, but knowing that male colleagues working in distribution centres were being paid more left a bitter taste in my mouth.
“It’s not much to ask to be paid an equal wage for work of equal value.”
But an Asda spokesman said there was a long way to go before the issues were finally settled: “This ruling relates to one stage of a complex case that is likely to take several years to reach a conclusion.
“We are defending these claims because the pay in our stores and distribution centres is the same for colleagues doing the same jobs regardless of their gender. Retail and distribution are very different sectors with their own distinct skill sets and pay rates.”
It said it remained confident in its case.
Lawyers say the ruling will have implications for supermarkets and other retailers.
“It would be difficult to underestimate the significance of this judgment which will send shockwaves far beyond Asda,” said Anne Pritam, partner and employment lawyer at Stephenson Harwood.
“It is a watershed moment for the rest of the retail industry, particularly those defending their own equal pay claims – such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Next – and which have similar staffing models and pay structures.”
“Ultimately, if all of the retailers lose their equal pay claims, it is estimated they could face £8bn in compensation payments to employees.”
Asda store workers argued they were paid less because most store workers are women, while most distribution depot staff are men.
Lawyers representing the store workers say depot workers were paid between £1.50-3.00 an hour more.
Asda said it had always paid the correct rate for the job, whether male or female, and pointed out that both men and women worked in both supermarkets and the warehouses.
Years of action
In 2016, an employment tribunal decided that Asda store workers were entitled to compare themselves to distribution staff and that decision was upheld by Court of Appeal judges in 2019.
Asda bosses then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Lawyers say litigation could run on for years.
There are three stages in equal pay action:
- Are the jobs comparable?
- If the jobs are comparable, are they of equal value?
- If they are of equal value, is there a reason why the roles should not be paid equally?
Following the Supreme Court ruling, lawyers say the next stage would involve an employment tribunal deciding whether specific store and distribution jobs were of “equal value”.
If judges decided that different jobs were of “equal value”, the litigation would then enter a third stage.
Under this, a tribunal would then consider whether there were reasons – other than gender – why people working in stores should not get the same pay rates as people working in distribution centres.
Asda store workers may have won this battle in their long running equal pay claim – but the war is far from over.
The Supreme Court has ruled that for the purposes of equal pay the work of the mainly male distribution workers can be compared to the mainly female shop floor workers.
But next they need to prove their work is of equal value – in terms of skills and training.
And finally that gender is the key reason that their pay is different.
The stakes here are high. Supermarkets could find themselves on the hook for more than £8bn in back pay.
And it could reverberate around other businesses too – where a majority of women carry out a certain role.