Isobel Lodwick’s great grandmother was a suffragette who chained herself to Glasgow’s Govan Town Hall in protest that only men could vote. Decades later, Ms Lodwick is also fighting for women’s rights as one of 5,000 claimants bringing an equal pay case against Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer.

The legal battle is one of five separate but related cases brought by more than 40,000 current and former store workers against the country’s biggest supermarkets. If Asda, Tesco, Wm Morrison, J Sainsbury and the Co-op lose it is estimated that the total compensation bill could top £8bn and prompt people in other sectors to take similar action.

The claims hinge on the pay differences between store workers, who are mainly women, and staff in the distribution depots, who are mostly men. It is being brought under the Equality Act 2010, which states that men and women should be paid the same for doing work of equal value: the store workers argue that their jobs are of equal value to those in the distribution depots.

“It’s not about financial reasons but because of the unfairness of the situation,” said Ms Lodwick, 59, a mother of three from Glasgow who worked at Tesco for 17 years in various in-store roles until she was made redundant last January. “I was really disappointed when I heard the differences in pay. It’s like you are not valued.”

The private sector appeared to have escaped the equal pay claims that have cost the public sector, notably Glasgow and Birmingham city councils, billions of pounds in the past 15 years.

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That is now changing, as law firms bring the suits on a “no win, no fee” basis, even though lawyers said the supermarket cases were more complex. “In the private sector there is less information about how the jobs compare”, according to Stefan Martin a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells.

The Asda case, brought by more than 30,000 current and former workers, is the furthest advanced and has been split into three linked trials, one of which will also consider whether factors such as geography are also responsible for pay differences. Owned by US retailer Walmart, Asda has already lost a Court of Appeal judgment over the issue. Its cases are set to run until at least 2021.

The first court hearing in the Tesco case, which is being brought by law firms Leigh Day and Harcus Parker, is scheduled for next year. Other lawsuits are at a much earlier stage: Sainsbury’s is facing 2,500 claims, Morrisons more than 1,500 and the Co-op has just received its first two. No court dates have been set in any of these disputes.

Pamela Jenkins, 59, from Bedfordshire, who has worked as a general assistant at Tesco on the night shift for the past 28 years is another claimant.

“Our jobs are more customer focused and those in distribution do not deal with customers but often we do their jobs in reverse,” she said. “They load the trolleys and put things on the lorries and we unload them and put them on the shelves as well as doing other things. It’s the unfairness of it all — we are all doing valuable jobs and we should get paid accordingly.”

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In the Asda case, Leigh Day claimed to the initial employment tribunal that pay differences between store and depot workers in the same town could be as much as 36 per cent. In 2010, 62 per cent of Asda’s retail workers were female; whereas 84 per cent of Asda’s distribution staff were men.

One internal Asda document which was shown to the tribunal referred to store workers as being “made up of predominantly part-time females who are working at Asda for a secondary income to support the main household bread winner”. It describes distribution workers as being “predominantly male, full-time and primary income earners”.

Asda is vigorously defending the case. It argued in court that the distribution and retail sector roles are “fundamentally different” and are “located in markedly different physical environments”. It said its hourly pay rates were the same for female and male workers.

“Pay rates in stores differ from pay rates in distribution centres because the demands of the jobs in stores and the jobs in distribution centres are very different. They operate in different market sectors and we pay the market rate in those sectors regardless of gender.” it said.

Tesco makes similar arguments about “fundamental differences” between jobs in stores and distribution centres. “These differences, in skills and demands, as well as the different markets in which they operate, do lead to variations in rates of pay between stores and distribution centres — but these are not in any way related to gender, and we will strongly defend these claims.” the company said.

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Sainsbury, Wm Morrison and the Co-op all said they would defend the lawsuits.

The legal action against the supermarkets is being closely watched. Felicity Staff, a lawyer at Taylor Wessing, said they could “ripple into other areas such as the hospitality industry, for example, with waiters and chefs or chefs working in-house at restaurants against chefs working in dark kitchens.”

“Financial services is another possible area,” Mr Martin said. “There might be cases brought by those working in call centres, for example, who are paid differently to those in branches for similar work.”



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