Asda supermarket workers’ long-running legal battle to receive pay equal to their colleagues who work in the company’s warehouses is being considered in a virtual hearing that got under way at the supreme court.
About 35,000 retail workers, the majority of whom are women, have filed claims asking to be paid the same as the predominantly male staff who work in the chain’s distribution depots, and who receive a higher wage.
The retailer is asking five justices of the UK’s highest court to overturn earlier rulings, including a 2019 verdict by the court of appeal that found in favour of the shop workers and said they could compare themselves to the higher-paid depot workers.
Asda, which is owned by US retailer Walmart, does not believe the retail workers are entitled to compare themselves with higher-paid warehouse staff.
The case, the biggest-ever equal pay claim in the UK private sector, is being heard over two days with the justices listening to the arguments over video. The justices are not expected to deliver a ruling until later in the year.
Lord Pannick QC, who is leading Asda’s legal team, told the justices on Monday the case depended on whether the store workers were “in the same employment” as those at the firm’s distribution depots.
“Asda submits that the answer is no,” Pannick said in a written case outline.
He said the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment depended on the “establishment” in which they worked.
“The different types of establishment operate in different geographical locations, in different industries and with different pay-setting processes,” Pannick said.
The Asda employees are being represented by the law firm Leigh Day, which was instructed by the GMB union.
The workers were hopeful they would win the fight, said Lauren Lougheed, a specialist in employment law at Leigh Day, and wanted to prove once and for all that the roles were comparable.
If the workers are successful, they are seeking six years of backdated pay from the retailer, from the date of their claim, meaning some workers would be able to claim backdated pay for a longer period.
However even if the supreme court justices rule in the workers’ favour, Leigh Day lawyers say their battle for equal pay will not end, as the shop employees will still have to show that the retail and distribution roles are of equal value.
The dispute is seen as a landmark case, and the outcome will have repercussions for about 8,000 workers at other supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op and Morrisons, who are also engaged in equal pay disputes with their employers.
Leigh Day has said if the five supermarkets lose the cases brought by the workers, they could be facing backdated pay claims totalling £8bn.