UK supermarket chain Asda loses ruling over equal pay claim

LONDON (AP) — More than 40,000 store workers at Asda, Britain’s third-largest supermarket chain, can proceed with their years-long claim for equal pay following a ruling on Friday from the United Kingdom (UK) Supreme Court.

The workers, around two-thirds of whom are women, first brought a gender discrimination claim in 2014. They complained that Asda staff members working in distribution depots, who are mostly men, were getting paid more.

The company argued that the depot and store jobs were not comparable. Asda took previous rulings against it to the UK’s highest court in July.

In a ruling led by Justice Mary Arden, the five-member court unanimously dismissed the appeal, a decision that means the workers can proceed with their claim and potentially win years of back pay.

“This is clearly a very substantial case for Asda,” she said. “However, 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.”

A spokesman for Asda said the company is defending the claims because “the pay in our stores and distribution centres is the same for colleagues doing the same jobs regardless of their gender”. He said that working in a distribution centre and in a store were very different jobs with their own skill sets and pay rates.

The ruling could have implications for other retailers and across the supermarket sector, which lawyers said potentially might have to pay out around GBP8 billion.

Lawyers from the law firm Leigh Day, who have represented the store workers, said the distribution depot workers were being paid between GBP1.50 and GBP3 an hour more. In 2016, an employment tribunal decided that store workers were entitled to compare themselves to distribution staff and that decision was upheld by Court of Appeal judges in 2019. Asda then appealed to the Supreme Court.

“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 Legal Director at the GMB union Susan Harris.

“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.