Tesco is facing a demand for up to £4bn in back pay from thousands of mainly female shopworkers in what could become the UK’s largest ever equal pay claim.
A law firm has launched legal action on behalf of nearly 100 shop assistants who say they earn as much as £3 an hour less than male warehouse workers in similar roles. Up to 200,000 shopfloor staff could be affected by the claim, which could cost Tesco up to £20,000 per worker in back pay over at least six years.
Tesco warehouse staff earn from about £8.50 an hour up to more than £11 an hour while store staff earn about £8 an hour in basic pay, according to the claim. The disparity could mean a full-time distribution worker earning over £5,000 a year more than store-based staff.
The legal firm behind the action, Leigh Day, has begun submitting claims through Acas, the conciliation service, as the first step before heading to the employment tribunal.
The case follows similar actions against Asda and Sainsbury’s which are working their way through the employment tribunal process. Nearly 20,000 people are involved in the Asda case, where the latest ruling backed the shopworkers’ right to compare their jobs to employees – mainly men – working in distribution centres. Asda is due to appeal against that ruling at the court of appeal in October. About 1,000 workers are involved in the Sainsbury’s action.
Unequal pay has also become a big battleground in the public sector, with female cleaners and dinner ladies taking legal action over claims that they were paid less than binmen or male street cleaners. Birmingham city council agreed to pay more than £1bn to settle the claims of tens of thousands of women which stretch back over many years.
Paula Lee, a Leigh Day lawyer who is representing the Tesco women, said: “We believe an inherent bias has allowed store workers to be underpaid over many years.
“There might be lifting and carrying in the distribution centre but there is also lifting and carrying in shops as well as dealing with customers asking questions and handling money.”
She said that men working in roles that have historically been predominantly carried out by women – jobs grouped under the five Cs of caring, cleaning, clerical, cashiering and catering – also tended to be underpaid.
“It is nuanced and complex but we do need to change how we measure work and value work,” she said.
Kim Element, 56, who has worked as a shop assistant at Tesco for 23 years and is currently a merchandising assistant in its Hemel Hempstead store’s clothing department, said she had decided to take part in the legal action after taking a pay cut recently.
She was upset to find that the mostly male warehouse workers continued to receive double pay for Sunday shifts while she and other long-serving shop staff were recently forced off that rate on to time and a half. Mindful of undercutting colleagues, they took the pay cut, worth about £200 a month to Element, to bring their pay in line with newer shopfloor staff.
“If it’s going to be fair it should be fair across the board,” Element said. “It makes me feel highly disappointed. If we are doing a job of equal value we should be paid accordingly.
“We are the face of Tesco. In the warehouse they don’t deal with customer inquiries. We build relationships with customers and that is just one aspect of the job. We are still pulling cages of stock, unbagging clothes.”
Pam Jenkins, 57, has worked for Tesco for 26 years and currently works mainly nights on the shopfloor in Tesco’s Baldock store in Hertfordshire. She is paid about £8 an hour and also recently lost out when Tesco reduced premium pay rates for Sunday shifts.
Her job involves collecting stock from the warehouse, stocking shelves and dealing with customers. “It is quite hands-on manual work,” she said.
Jenkins said: “Tesco is a good employer. They just need to get their facts right. They say they want everybody to be equal. It should be equal pay for equal value. I do feel let down and a bit miffed to say the least.”
Tesco said it would consider any changes to pay in partnership with Usdaw, the trade union which represents the majority of its shopfloor staff.
The supermarket said it was yet to receive details of any claim. Tesco said: “We are unable to comment on a claim that we have not received. Tesco has always been a place for people to get on in their career, regardless of their gender, background or education, and we work hard to make sure all our colleagues are paid fairly and equally for the jobs they do.”