Other retailers braced for fallout as 7,000 supermarket employees win right to bring cases

A ruling that female store workers at Asda can proceed with the UK’s largest private sector equal pay claim is likely to have “far-reaching implications” for other retailers, according to the law firm behind the action.

The Manchester Employment Tribunal told representatives of 7,000 current and former Asda employees that they can compare themselves to more highly paid male colleagues, who work in the retailer’s distribution centre, allowing them to bring a series of test cases that could lead to payouts of more than £100m.

Leigh Day, representing the employees – the majority of whom are female and work as checkout staff and shelf stackers – had argued their jobs were comparable to roles in the distribution centre, which are generally performed by men and are better paid. Warehouse workers can earn up to £4 per hour more than shopfloor workers, which the female employees allege amounts to gender discrimination.

The latest judgment, which ruled the comparison between the two groups was valid, follows a two-week hearing in June. Lauren Lougheed, an employment lawyer at Leigh Day who is representing the claimants, said the decision could see workers recovering more than £100m in claims from the retailer, dating back to 2002, and may also result in new claims from workers who had been awaiting the result of the Manchester judgment.

Asda said that it believed “the demands of the jobs are very different” and that it was considering its options for an appeal.

The supermarket had previously tried to stop the claims from proceeding in an employment tribunal, arguing they should be heard in the High Court. However, the Court of Appeal ruled against the retailer.

Lougheed said the ruling was “a dramatic victory” for the workers she is representing. “Asda tried to argue that because the shops and distribution centres were in different locations, with different pay arrangements, that Asda could pay the men what they like.

“However, the employment tribunal found that Asda, the employer of both men and women, could have made sure that there was equal pay between men and women if they wanted to, but chose not to.”

Lougheed said the judgment would have far-reaching implications for other supermarket equal pay claims – “including those we are bringing on behalf of around 400 Sainsbury’s workers who are in a similar situation” – and the wider retail sector.

Denise Keating, chief executive of enei, said it was important to remember that while the tribunal ruling has confirmed that store workers (both male and female) can compare their roles and pay to the primarily male warehouse workers, “the courts have not yet found the comparison to be an equal one”.

“The situation that Asda finds itself in is really a test case for the wider retail sector, where differences in pay and the gender balance of workforces in stores and warehouses are similar across the sector. The important question that has yet to be answered is whether the roles are of equal value,” she said.

In a separate case, Tesco is facing legal action from staff who claim they have lost out on pay by working anti-social hours, after the supermarket changed its rates for weekends, bank holidays and night shifts.