(Bloomberg) — The U.K.’s Supreme Court this week offered the country’s female retail employees fresh hope in an ongoing fight for equal pay, that could trigger billions of dollars in compensation claims.
Over 40,000 women who work in Asda Group Ltd.’s retail stores have joined the class-action discrimination suit first filed in 2014. Friday’s ruling enables them to continue to pursue their claim.
Asda is one of the U.K.’s biggest supermarket chains and the suit is the largest equal pay claim in the private sector. It also sets a significant legal precedent for others fighting for workplace gender equality and against pay discrimination in the country.
It ruled that the work that female employees do in a supermarket can be compared to that of male staff who work in Asda’s warehouses in respect of equal pay. The panel of judges said this case was important because otherwise an employer could avoid equal pay claims by allocating groups of employees to separate locations with different terms and conditions, even where this is discriminatory.
How much is the ruling worth?
The lawyers representing the workers have said each female staff member will be entitled to an average of 10,000 pounds ($13,800) in compensation, if they win the case. So far, 44,000 female Asda workers have joined the claim, but more could join after today’s ruling. In 2016, when the claim was first put before a court, Asda had 133,000 hourly paid retail employees, both male and female, so the ruling will likely reach 440 million pounds at the very least.
Will it expand beyond grocers?
Leigh Day, the London law firm leading the case, has also filed equal pay suits against Asda’s biggest competitors, Tesco Plc, J Sainsbury Plc and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc, and Next Plc, a popular home and clothing retailer. If the firm wins each of these cases, the retailers could face a 8 billion pound payout to its female staff.
It doesn’t stop there. This also sets a legal precedent for any company which has a pay discrepancy between staff who work on the shop floor compared to those in their distribution centres. Friday’s ruling could propel workers to take legal action against their employers.
The ruling only tackled the preliminary issue of comparative work. While it was a big hurdle that the staff needed to clear, the case now returns to a specialist employment tribunal to determine if the roles are of equal value and if the pay discrepancy was a result of sex discrimination. Again, whichever way the tribunal rules, it can still be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, so it will likely take another few years for a final ruling to be given.