Shop stewards representing more than 130,000 retail workers yesterday threatened legal action and strikes if other companies follow Asda's lead and lower premium pay rates for Sunday working.
The Asda stores group, which made pounds 2.5bn pre-tax profit, is to reduce the wage level from double time to time and a half for any employee who starts working on Sundays after 1 November. Wages for new Sunday workers will be pounds 11 less for six hours' work.
More than 100 delegates from stores all over Britain at the annual retail conference of Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, yesterday also singled out the Co-op for special criticism. Despite a national agreement reaffirming double time for Sunday work, around a dozen local Co-op societies have been paying temporary workers much less, according to the union.
Bill Connor, deputy general secretary of Usdaw, told stores representatives that the policies drawn up by Asda and local Co-ops could form the "thin end of the wedge". If rates were reduced companies would inevitably have to resort to illegal coercion to make people work on Sundays, he told them.
Asda, along with seven other big retailers, but not the Co-op, signed an agreement during the passage of the Sunday Trading Bill earlier this year, guaranteeing existing premium rates unless there was a significant change in circumstances. The deal helped to ensure minimal opposition to the legislation, which stated that Sunday working should be voluntary.
Mr Connor argues that there have been no dramatic new influences and that the move is against the spirit of the law, at least. He also argues that the practice of paying single time to employees who only work a few hours on a Sunday inevitably discriminates against women.
The GMB general union, which claims a 30,000-strong membership at Asda, out of a workforce of nearly 70,000, will this week ballot its members on the plan to reduce wages.
The union is threatening to follow up the consultation with a formal vote on industrial action which could disrupt sales ahead of Christmas.
Asda yesterday expressed its confidence that an "overwhelming" majority of staff would support its policy, because the company had also introduced greater flexibility over Sunday working. A GMB spokeswoman expected a similarly large vote against it, arguing that morale was "rock-bottom". A two-year pay freeze during a period when the company was in trouble had been followed by management's rejection of a 3 per cent pay claim when the company was making substantial profits. Check-out operators at Asda are paid pounds 3.67 an hour, less than most other major groups.
John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, is expected to meet Patrick Gillam, chairman of Asda, within the next week or so to urge a rethink.
Asda has pointed out that while the agreement signed to smooth the passage of the Bill protected premium rates, it did not stipulate what they should be.
The Act simply insisted that Sunday working should be voluntary and management would abide by the law.Reuse content