British Supermarket Workers Win Equal Pay Dispute at EU High Court

The law firm representing Tesco employees has brought similar suits against other British grocery chains, including Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

People observe social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by as they wait to shop outside a Tesco supermarket in west London in April 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The European Union’s top court has sided with employees of British supermarket giant Tesco in a dispute over pay equality. 

The European Court of Justice found on Thursday that the United Kingdom’s leading grocery retailer had failed to pay male and female workers the same, in a complaint brought by more than 6,000 current and former employees. 

The case hinged on the concept of “single source,” an EU employment law term referring to the idea that the pay between workers of different establishments can be compared if there is a single source that could correct a disparity, such as a parent company. 

“In the present instance, it follows from the request for a preliminary ruling that Tesco Stores appears to constitute, in its capacity as employer, a single source to which the pay conditions of the workers performing their work in its stores and distribution centres may be attributed and which could be responsible for any discrimination,” the court’s Second Chamber wrote. 

The matter was referred to the Court of Justice by the Watford Employment Tribunal, where workers brought their initial complaint. The law firm that brought the complaint on behalf of the workers, Leigh Day, has been described in the press as the “scourge of the corporations” and was co-founded by the former director of Greenpeace. It has brought similar cases against other U.K. grocery chains like Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

Tesco, which operates in 11 countries, argued that the workers – shop employees who were mostly women and distribution center workers who were mostly men – were doing different work and could be compensated differently. 

The Luxembourg-based court was able to adjudicate the case despite the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc in 2020 because of an agreement negotiated in the withdrawal agreement. 

Whether the work was, in fact, equal, is up for the referring court to determine.

“It is for the national court, which alone has jurisdiction to find and assess the facts, to determine whether, in the light of the actual nature of the activities carried out by those workers, equal value can be attributed to them,” the Court of Justice decision states.

Leigh Day partner Kiran Daurka, who represented the employees, said in a statement that the ruling “confirms that this single-source test can be relied upon by people in the UK bringing an equal value claim.”

“This means that employers can no longer hide behind the grey areas of UK law. It’s time for supermarkets to accept that the roles of shop floor workers and distribution centre workers are comparable,” Daurka said.

A Tesco spokesperson defended the company’s labor practices in a statement. 

“These roles require different skills and demands which lead to variations in pay – but this has absolutely nothing to do with gender,” the spokeswoman said. “We reward our colleagues fairly for the jobs they do and work hard to ensure that the pay and benefits we offer are fair, competitive and sustainable.”

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