There has been another baby step forward in the long-running equal pay case brought by more than 40,000 female employees at Asda.
It is one of a slew of battles being fought across the retail sector, including at Next, where female staff recently won the right to take their case to its final stage.
These cases raise broader questions about how we value “women’s work”, even in 2023 – more than half a century after the Dagenham machinists walked out of the Ford factory to demand equal pay.
It seems independent experts have found that shop-floor jobs, carried out predominantly by women, score more highly on average on a range of factors, such as knowledge and responsibility, than distribution jobs, held predominantly by men. That’s crucial, because the retail workers say they are paid £1.50 to £3 less an hour.
A long road remains in this case, with a tribunal hearing not due until next year. Asda rightly points out that there is no automatic read-across from these higher average scores to a ruling that specific jobs are of equal value.
And it is hard to avoid the suspicion that buried beneath all of these cases is the same deep-seated social norm that was on display in Dagenham all those years ago – that work performed by women must, by definition, be less valuable.
It’s hard to think of a more important job than caring for preschool children, or elderly care home residents, to take two examples. Yet as a society we’ve quietly accepted the fact that these female-dominated roles rarely command more than the national minimum wage.
As Elizabeth George, a partner at Leigh Day, who is acting for Next workers, put it recently: “We think we can say: ‘No, the market forces argument is tainted by sex discrimination. Just because you’ve always done it, and just because everyone else does it, isn’t a material factor.’” The retailers will, of course, vehemently disagree.