Check-out worker begins mother of all pay battles

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Deborah Banks began a battle yesterday which could cost employers millions of pounds and affect up to two million British women who work in low-paid and part-time jobs.

The 25-year-old former supermarket checkout worker has gone to an industrial tribunal in pursuit of a claim for pounds 700 missed maternity pay. She is pursuing her claim against Tesco and Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, after she was denied the money because her salary was pounds 1 too low.

If her case is successful it could lead to a change in the law, which would force employers to pay millions in extra maternity pay for women whose salaries are below the level necessary to require national insurance contributions. Even if the case is not won at the tribunal, the charity Maternity Alliance, which is backing Mrs Banks, has said it will take the fight through the appeal courts and on to the European Court.

Mrs Banks used to work 15 hours a week for her local Tesco in Gillingham, Kent, and earned pounds 55.93, just pounds 1 less on average than the low pay limit. She left the store on maternity leave in December 1994 when she was pregnant with her second child but she had not earned enough to qualify for payment of Statutory Maternity Pay, despite having worked since 1988.

She said yesterday that she wanted to prevent other women being caught in a low-pay trap. "I am not doing this for me. I am doing it for the thousands of women out there who do not get maternity pay because they do not earn enough." Apart from losing maternity pay, Mrs Banks was also ineligible for income support because her husband was in full-time employment.

The legal action is being brought under the Equal Pay Act, which is supposed to guarantee equal rights for women working in the same jobs as men. Campaigners say the vast majority of the approximately 50 per cent of Tesco's employees who are not earning enough to pay national insurance contributions are women.