LONDON (Reuters) – Workers at Britain’s Asda supermarkets won a key victory on Friday in a long-running dispute over equal pay, with the UK’s top court ruling they can compare themselves to staff at the group’s distribution centres.
Law firm Leigh Day is representing 44,000 current and former Asda shop floor workers in an equal pay claim against Britain’s third largest supermarket group, in what is seen as a test case ahead of similar cases against the UK’s other big supermarket groups.
Asda appealed to the Supreme Court against a Court of Appeal judgement in 2019 that lower-paid store staff, who are mostly women, could compare themselves with more highly paid distribution centre workers, who are mostly men, in pay claims.
That ruling followed defeats for Asda in the Employment Tribunal and Employment Appeals Tribunal.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday only relates to the first part of the Asda workers’ claim and a full legal process could last several years.
For overall victory the workers also need a ruling that the different jobs are of equal value. A third stage in the process would then consider if there are any factors other than gender why the roles should not be paid equally.
“The Supreme Court’s dismissal of the appeal (by Asda) does not mean that the claimants’ claims for equal pay succeed,” the Supreme Court said.
“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.”
The GMB union hailed a “massive victory” for workers but Asda said it would fight on.
“We remain confident in our case,” Asda said in a statement.
It argues that retail and distribution are two different industry sectors and it pays workers the market rates for these sectors.
Britain’s other big supermarket retailers face similar equal pay claims.
Leigh Day is representing 45,000 current and former shop floor staff at Britain’s five biggest supermarket groups – market leader Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda Morrisons and the Co-op – in equal pay cases. Most are from Asda.
The law firm’s total estimate of the groups’ potential liability is 8 billion pounds ($11 billion). Between them Britain’s top four grocers employ nearly 800,000 workers.
Last month Mohsin and Zuber Issa and private equity company TDR Capital completed their purchase of a majority holding in Asda from U.S. giant Walmart.
Asda declined to comment on who would be liable for any future payout in the workers’ case.
($1 = 0.7262 pounds)
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Kate Holton and Susan Fenton)