LONDON (AP) — More than 40,000 store workers at Asda, Britain's third-largest supermarket chain, can proceed with their yearslong claim for equal pay following a ruling Friday from the U.K. Supreme Court.
The workers, around two-thirds of whom are women, first brought a sex 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 U.K.'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 centers is the same for colleagues doing the same jobs regardless of their gender.” He said that working in a distribution center and in a store were very different jobs with their own skill sets and pay rates.
“Asda has always paid colleagues the market rate in these sectors and we remain confident in our case,” he added.
The ruling could have implications for other retailers and across the supermarket sector, which lawyers said potentially might have to pay out around 8 billion pounds ($11 billion).
Lawyers from the law firm Leigh Day, who have represented the store workers, said the distribution depot workers were being paid between 1.50 pounds ($2.10) and 3 pounds ($4.10) 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 Susan Harris, legal director at the GMB union.
“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.
Lawyers for the store staff said the next stage in the claim would involve an employment tribunal deciding whether specific store and distribution jobs were of equal value.
“It’s our hope that Asda will now stop dragging its heels and pay their staff what they are worth," said Lauren Lougheed, a lawyer at the firm Leigh Day.