The New Worker
The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 31st October 2014
THE SUPERMARKET giant Asda is facing a mass action by its female workers over equal pay in a case that could set a precedent for millions of retail workers.
The case is being brought on behalf of 414 women by a no-win-no-fee legal firm on the basis that in-store work — shelf filling and on the checkout tills, which is done mainly by women — is of equal value to warehouse and delivery work, which is done mainly by men.
Leigh Day, the law firm managing the case, say they received over 19,000 enquiries from current and former Asda employees regarding the pay gap in the business, with some saying they were paid around £4.00 per hour, far below the minimum wage.
If the case is successful in court, female workers could be compensated by the supermarket for up to six years’ worth of back pay. “In the supermarkets, the check-out staff and shelf-stackers are mostly women,” said Leigh Day employment law specialist Michael Newman.
“The people in the warehouses are pretty much all men. And, as a whole, the group that is mostly men gets paid more.”
“While the jobs are not similar, we still think they are of equal value,” he added.
But Asda, which employs 170,000 staff across more than 300 nationwide stores, claims it “does not discriminate” and has “strong policies on treating its staff equally”.
The case follows a report from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) showing women are on average paid 15.7 per cent less per hour than men in a full time job.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady called for “tougher action” to force companies to look at their pay gaps, and that the Government’s strategy on pay inequality was “clearly failing”.
If the case succeeds Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis could face similar claims. Supermarkets may have to pay millions of pounds in higher wages and back pay to store staff, mainly women.
Two years ago the law firm Leigh Day won a landmark £1 billion Supreme Court ruling for lower-paid women employed by Birmingham city council.
“The implications for any supermarket are enormous,” said Michael Newman of Leigh Day, the legal firm representing the workers. The cases are possible because Asda, which employs 172,000 staff, owns and operates its own distribution warehouses.
If the legal action succeeds, other supermarkets who also own their distribution centres may face similar claims. Most retailers own some of their distribution centres and lease others and use a mix of directly employed and third-party staff.
Those stacking goods in distribution centres tend to be paid more than shop-floor staff, but some retailers said this was justified by the uncomfortable conditions, additional skills and unsocial working hours involved.
But shelf-filling also requires a lot of heavy lifting and many big supermarkets are now open 24-hours-a-day.
Newman said Leigh Day was representing 414 store staff, most though not all women. “In the supermarkets check-out staff and shelf-stackers are mostly women. The people in the warehouses are pretty much all men. And, who would be surprised, the group that is mostly men gets paid more,” he said.
“We are very confident that the jobs are pretty much the same. In the warehouses they take stuff off the shelves, put it on a pallet and stick it on a lorry. In the supermarket, they do the reverse: take the pallets off the lorry, unstack them and put stuff on the shelves.”
Victory would mark a significant step in the battle for equal pay, said Newman. “There has been huge advancement in the public sector. But in the private sector it is still the 1970s. Job evaluations don’t happen. Cases aren’t brought. So you still get this very segregated workplace.
“Women are over here doing the women’s work and men are over there doing men’s work.” The precedent for equal pay claims for comparable jobs was set in 1997 when 1,500 Cleveland dinner ladies won a £5 million payout.
The general and public service unions GMB and Unison said they had 40,000 outstanding cases across Britain, including in Birmingham.