An equal pay claim involving more than 7,000 female supermarket workers – which is said to be the most economically significant piece of litigation to be launched in the UK in recent times – will be heard by an Employment Tribunal (ET) after a novel bid to transfer it to the High Court was rejected.
The women’s lawyers say that their hourly-paid jobs are of equal value to work done, predominantly by men, in the supermarket’s distribution depots. However, the latter are claimed to be substantially better paid. That, it is argued, is a legacy of long outdated and discriminatory perceptions that so-called ‘women’s work’ is worth less than jobs done by men. The women’s claims are, however, being vigorously contested by the supermarket chain for which they all work.
The chain argued that the case was highly exceptional, indeed unique, and that the outcome would have an enormous impact not only on its own 15,000 employees but on the retail industry in general. It was said to be the most important, complex and financially significant equal pay claim ever pursued in the private sector and that the ripple effects would affect the whole UK economy. The women’s lawyers, however, argued that that was all overblown hyperbole.
In those circumstances, the chain argued that the case should be transferred from the ET to the High Court for resolution. The Court acknowledged that it had power to hear the case. In refusing the application, however, it found that there was no statute or rule of law which permitted the ET to stay the proceedings before it indefinitely and to relinquish jurisdiction in favour of the Court.