Equal pay was introduced 40 years ago, but female staff at Asda allege they are still being paid less than men for comparable jobs.
The gap was highlighted when an equal pay claim was taken out against Asda by female shop-floor employees, who claimed they were being paid £4 per hour less than their male counterparts working in the organisation’s warehouse.
Lawyers Leigh Day said it had been approached by 19,000 Asda employees, mainly women, about the claims and it will be representing 400 of them.
If the claimants are successful, they may be entitled to six years’ back pay to compensate for the difference in earnings, which would be the largest-ever employment claim in the private sector.
Bee Rycroft, senior corporate media relations manager at Asda, said: “This is a legal case, so we can’t say much more at this time. It is worth understanding, however, that this is a case about the different types of work done by people and not about gender. Our [original] statement still stands: A firm of no-win, no-fee lawyers is hoping to challenge our reputation as an equal opportunities employer. We do not discriminate and are very proud of our record in this area which, if it comes to it, we will robustly defend.”
Michael Newman, discrimination and employment specialist at Leigh Day, said Asda’s check-out staff and shelf-stackers are mostly women, while staff in the warehouses are predominantly men, who are paid more.
Leigh Day and Asda are due to attend a tribunal hearing on 30 January 2015, said Newman.
“Although the cases started in 2008 and Leigh Day was involved from the start of this year, this is a preliminary hearing, so the tribunal will be deciding what documents need to be disclosed, dates for exchange of witness statements and dates for a final hearing,” he said.
“There are likely to be several ‘final’ hearings. Whether the claimants and comparators do work of equal value and whether Asda has a material factor defence (a good reason for paying men more than women) are likely to be [the focus for] at least two of the hearings.
“The real significance of the case is about how segregated workplaces can be. As long as society still has such fixed ideas about men’s work and women’s work, there is going to be a need for cases like this.”
The pay gap between the UK’s highest and lowest earners has grown significantly since 2000, according to research by the Trades Union Congress.
And according to the Fawcett Society, the UK charity that campaigns for women’s equality and rights, the pay gap between the genders has become so wide that women effectively work for free for two months every year.
But the law is changing to tackle this issue. With effect from 1 October 2014, tribunals have the power to require employers that lose an equal pay claim to complete an equal pay audit of their workforce.