Asda swimming against tide in dispute over 'women's work'

Thousands of largely female shop workers argue that they get paid less than the company’s largely male warehouse workers for comparable roles  

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Tuesday 10 October 2017 12:56
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Asda is fighting an equal pay claim brought by thousands of workers
Asda is fighting an equal pay claim brought by thousands of workers

“Women’s work.”

That used to be a thing in the labour market.

There were jobs that were seen as suitable for women. And there were jobs seen as suitable for men.

Even if the roles were of similar importance, and of a similar grade, it goes without saying that the women would get paid less.

Of course, we now live in the 21st century. Towards the end of the last one legislation started to be enacted with the aim of doing away with the distinction. It will soon be 50 years since the Equal Pay Act came into force.

So it shouldn’t be a thing any more.

Except that it is. There is an Equal Pay Act. But that doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as equal pay.

This week sees the latest stage in a tortuous legal process brought by 15,000 current and former Asda workers. They work in shops. And they are mostly female. And compared to their colleagues in warehouses and distribution centres they say they get paid less. Those colleagues are, of course, largely male.

A hearing will be asked to decide the process for writing and agreeing job descriptions for the work performed by the various workers in the two groups.

Once that has been done the roles will be scored. Where the shop workers get an equal or greater score than their warehouse equivalents they will have a claim if they get paid less.

As you might imagine, this could get very expensive for the company, because back pay will also have to be taken into consideration. The figure of £100m has been mentioned.

Asda operates in a brutally competitive sector and has been struggling. It needs a hit like that like a hole in the head.

So it has chosen to fight, arguing that men and women doing the same jobs in the same locations are paid the same amounts, but that there are legitimate reasons for paying those working in different locations different sums.

It looks superficially plausible, until you consider the historical context of “women’s work” being less valued than “men’s work” and the excuses that have long been deployed to justify that. Excuses that contribute to a gender pay gap that, according to official figures, even today stands at 9.4 per cent among full-time workers despite all that legislation. Which is frankly appalling.

Progressive-minded employers have been seeking to address that. The pity is that Asda is not among them.

In reality there should be no such thing as women’s work or men’s work. There should just be work for which employees in essentially comparable roles, with comparable responsibilities, should be compensated with equal pay.

If it takes the courts to enforce that, then so be it, because it is simply unconscionable.

Employers like Asda should stop swimming against the tide.

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