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Asda facing major legal fight over equal pay

28 / 10 / 2014
Asda facing major legal fight over equal payThere have been many battles fought and won in the arena of personal, legal and employment rights - from the creation of universal suffrage to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 - but equal pay appears to be one that is often honoured in the breach.

Decades after the 1970 Equal Pay Act was passed, women still earn less on average than men. Some of this has been down to some of the fuzzy edges around the law, such as the fact that taking maternity leave could lead to long-service rewards being lost, for instance.

However, these have been tightened up on and many of the abuses that take place now are simply a failure to comply with legal regulations. This can apply to equal pay just as it does on occasions where companies fail to pay staff the minimum wage.

The stereotype for this kind of practice is that it is some 'dodgy builder' types that are guilty of such sharp practice, but it is one of Britain's largest retailers in the spotlight in the latest case, as thousands of female warehouse staff have joined together to launch a mass action claiming they have been paid less than men for jobs of the same value.

Leigh Day, the legal firm handling the case, has said as many as 19,000 Asda staff have contacted it, although the figure it is expecting to be involved is around 10,000.

The legal argument centres on the comparative value of warehouse and checkout roles. The former is dominated by men, the latter by women. However, it is the warehouse workers who earn £4 more on average.

According to the law firm, the case is comparable with the 1968 Ford Strike, when women involved in sewing work were told their jobs were less skilled - and thus deserving of lower pay - than those of men on the production line.

Speaking to the Guardian, discrimination and employment law expert at Leigh Day Michael Newman said: "In the supermarkets, the checkout staff and shelf-stackers are mostly women. The people in the warehouses are pretty much all men.

"And, as a whole, the group that is mostly men gets paid more."

Some of the claims lodged so far are actually from men, who believe a win for their female checkout assistants would mean a pay rise for them too.

Asda has made it clear it is highly unimpressed with the claims, with a spokesperson commenting: "A firm of no win, no fee lawyers are hoping to challenge our award-winning 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."

Asda may be drawing the battle lines, but other major employers have lost cases of this kind. One very notable example was that of Britain's most populous local authority, Birmingham City Council.

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that 170 female staff had been underpaid, allowing them to claim back payments dating back six years. This enabled thousands more to make similar claims, leaving the council with an estimated bill of over £1 billion.

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