Video report from ITV News Correspondent Martha Fairlie
Asda bosses have lost a Supreme Court fight with store workers - mostly women - who brought equal pay claims after complaining that staff working in distribution depots unfairly got more money.
The Supreme Court judgement on Friday followed an appealing by the supermarket against a ruling that 40,000 workers in its stores, of which about two-thirds are women, should be on comparative salaries with depot staff, who are mainly male.
Judges decided that store workers were entitled to compare themselves to distribution staff for equal pay purposes.The outcome of Friday's ruling could have far reaching implications for equal pay claims for the retail sector and beyond.
Lawyers representing the store workers say distribution depot workers get between £1.50 and £3.00 an hour more.
The GMB union, which brought the claim on behalf of its members, hailed the ruling as "amazing news" and has called for Asda bosses to "sit down" and reach an agreement on back pay.
Susan Harris, the GMB’s legal director, said: "This is amazing news and a massive victory for Asda’s predominantly women shop floor workforce.
"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."
Wendy Arundale, who worked for Asda for 32 years, said: "I’m delighted that shop floor workers are one step closer to achieving equal pay.
"I loved my job, but knowing that male colleagues working in distribution centres were being paid more left a bitter taste in my mouth."
Following Friday's ruling, an Asda spokesman said: "This ruling relates to one stage of a complex case that is likely to take several years to reach a conclusion.
"We are defending these claims because the pay in our stores and distribution centres is the same for colleagues doing the same jobs regardless of their gender.
"Retail and distribution are very different sectors with their own distinct skill sets and pay rates. Asda has always paid colleagues the market rate in these sectors and we remain confident in our case."
The five Supreme Court judges dismissed Asda’s appeal and unanimously ruled in favour of store workers.
One, Lady Arden, said: "This is clearly a very substantial case for Asda. At the time of the hearing before the employment tribunal in June 2016, Asda had around 630 retail stores and employed approximately 133,000 hourly paid retail employees.”
She indicated that the litigation would now proceed to another stage.
"However, my conclusion, agreed by the other Justices hearing this appeal, does not mean that the claimants’ claims for equal pay succeed,” she said.
"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.”
Judges considered arguments at a hearing in July before delivering their ruling on Friday.
The litigation began some years ago.
In 2016, an employment tribunal decided that store workers were entitled to compare themselves to distribution staff.
That decision was upheld by Court of Appeal judges in 2019. Asda bosses then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Lawyers say the store workers’ fight will not end, and the litigation could run on for years.
They say the next stage would involve an employment tribunal deciding whether specific store and distribution jobs were of “equal value”.
If judges decided that different jobs were of “equal value”, the litigation would then enter a third stage.
Lawyers say an employment tribunal would then consider whether there were reasons – other than gender – why people working in stores should not get the same pay rates as people working in distribution centres.
Store workers bringing claims are members of the GMB union.