Asda bosses have lost a Supreme Court equal pay fight with store workers.
More than 40,000 Asda store workers, about two-thirds of whom are women, brought equal pay claims after complaining that staff working in distribution depots unfairly get more money.
Lawyers representing the store workers say distribution depot workers get between £1.50 and £3.00 an hour more.
Supreme Court justices were asked to consider whether Asda store workers are entitled to compare themselves to distribution staff for equal pay purposes.
Five Supreme Court judges dismissed Asda’s appeal and unanimously ruled in favour of store workers on Friday, after considering arguments at a hearing in July.
The store workers, who are represented by law firm Leigh Day, made sex discrimination claims, saying they historically got less because most store workers are women while most distribution depot staff are men.
Store workers bringing claims are members of the GMB union, which hailed the ruling as “amazing news”.
‘Asda has wasted money’
“This is amazing news and a massive victory for Asda’s predominantly women shop floor workforce,” said Susan Harris, the GMB union’s legal director.
“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,” she added.
Harris urged Asda bosses to “sit down” and reach agreement on back pay.
“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,” she added.
Lauren Lougheed, a Leigh Day lawyer, said: “We are delighted that our clients have cleared such a big hurdle in their fight for equal pay.
“Already an employment tribunal, the employment appeal tribunal and the Court of Appeal ruled that these roles can be compared, and now the Supreme Court has come to the same conclusion.
“It’s our hope that Asda will now stop dragging its heels and pay their staff what they are worth.”
What happens next?
One of the judges in the case, Lady Arden, indicated that the litigation would now proceed to another stage, saying: “My conclusion, agreed by the other Justices hearing this appeal, does not mean that the claimants’ claims for equal pay succeed.
“At this stage all that has been determined is that they can use terms and conditions of employment enjoyed by the distribution employees as a valid comparison.”
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.
Lawyers say an employment 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.
Lawyers say the store workers’ fight will not end, and litigation could run on for years; if Asda store workers win all further stages of their fight they could be entitled to several years’ back pay, which will have implications across the retail industry and may lead to supermarkets paying out around £8 billion.
An Asda spokesperson said: “This ruling relates to one stage of a complex case that is likely to take several years to reach a conclusion.