Asda: taking us back to 1968

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Asda is facing mass legal action from thousands of female employees who are claiming that they are being paid less than their male colleagues for jobs of equal value within the supermarket chain. Upon seeing this, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we were back in Dagenham 1968 and about to witness the sewing machinists’ strike. On average, women earn up to 15% less in the public sector than their male counterparts in over 90% of jobs. In the private sector, the pay gap rises up to 20% when measured by looking at average hourly earnings. That is a shocking statistic and shows, despite many protestations to the contrary, that equal pay between the genders still needs to be a talking point. The national Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that women earned less than men in 32 of 35 major occupations classified by the Office for National Statistics.

It seems women at Asda have had enough. The case, with the employees being represented by Leigh Day, could be the largest ever employment claim from the private sector. The law firm revealed earlier this year that they would be representing 400 members of staff from the supermarket giant, but since then a further 19,000 employees have come forward to register their interest. If Asda loses they could be forced to pay back earning differences to over 100,000 staff dating back six years. The leading lawyer on this case, Lauren Lougheed, said that the pay difference between shop workers and warehouse workers could be as much as £4 an hour. Clearly this makes a very big difference if you’re on minimum wage.

The reasoning behind this case is that the employees who work at the checkouts or as shelf stackers are predominantly women, whilst those employed in the warehouses are usually men, and are paid differently despite the similarity of their work. The argument is that these employees have the same value to the company and therefore should be paid equally. A spokesperson for Asda said they would “robustly defend” their reputation in the field of employee equality against this “no win, no fee” law firm. Some would argue that those working in warehouses have more skills, such as using forklift trucks, and therefore deserve higher pay, but this case is based on the value of such jobs to the company and also the manual vs. skills based nature of each job. If the women are successful in their case it could have a huge impact across the whole sector, not just at Asda. The case will be heard next year, and some have called it a “watershed” for the private sector because they have been much slower to act than their public sector counterparts on areas to do with equal pay. Politicians have also been quick to weigh in on this case with Gloria de Piero, the shadow women’s minister, suggesting that any companies with more the 250 employees should be obliged to undertake an equal pay audit to be published in each company’s annual report.

Under the terms of equality law, pay should be the same between genders for jobs of equal value and that is where the crux of this case lies: whether the claimants can prove that their jobs have equal value. Technicalities aside this case once again highlights the discrepancies in pay between male and female workers doing the same type of work. It’s been 46 years since Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis and Sheila Douglass led women away from their sewing machines in pursuit of fairer pay, and 44 years since the fruits of their labour in the form of the Equal Pay Act of 1970; yet the statistics still paint a glaringly obvious picture that things are far from equal. Clearly this needs to be addressed and perhaps this case with Asda is just the starting point.

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