Employers urged to assess reward practices as Co-op equal pay claim progresses

Supermarket concedes retail and distribution centre roles are comparable as it becomes the latest to face gender disparity claims

Co-op’s shop floor workers will be allowed to progress an equal pay claim against the supermarket after it was decided their roles could be compared to those of colleagues who work at the supermarket’s distribution centres.

The shop floor workers, who are predominantly female, are paid between £1.50 to £3.00 per hour less than distribution centre workers, who are predominantly male, which the claimants are arguing amounts to unfair pay.

Yesterday (31 January), law firm Leigh Day, which is representing 1,600 workers bringing the claims against the Co-op, announced that the supermarket conceded a “comparability concession”, which will allow a tribunal to look further into whether the roles are of equal value. The supermarket holds that all staff are compensated fairly for the work they do.

The case will now proceed to an Employment Tribunal, where Co-op will have to show that the work is not of equal value or that there is a genuine reason for the pay disparity that is not gender related.

A Co-op spokesperson told People Management that paying its staff fairly for their work was central to the company’s values. “We believe that we pay our colleagues fairly for the roles that they do, and so will continue to defend these claims,” they stated.

The concession comes as a number of other supermarkets, including Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, face similar unequal pay claims from their own retail staff.

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Last year, Next and Sainsbury’s both conceded on the issue of comparability, while an Employment Tribunal ruled the same regarding two ‘similar’ roles at Morrisons. And before this, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that a Tesco worker could compare their role with somebody working in a different establishment.

Commenting on the development, Samantha Dickinson, partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, said the concession from Co-op was “not a huge surprise” considering the equal pay claims faced by many of the big supermarkets over the years.

In particular, Dickinson cited a Supreme Court decision in March 2021 where the judges unanimously upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that Asda’s retail workers, who are predominantly women, were on ‘common terms’ with the predominantly male distribution workers – even if the two roles in question were not working on the same site.

She suggested that, following the Asda case, this Co-op case was “a timely reminder to employers to ensure pay practices are equitable where the type of work being done, and the skills and knowledge needed to do it, are the same or broadly similar”.

Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, added that, should the Co-op employees be successful in their claims, the tribunal has the power to not only make the retailer increase their pay to a comparable level, but also require it to backdate any pay rises. 

Lewis added that the aggregate awards would be “very significant” as arrears can be awarded in England and Wales going back six years before the date the claim was commenced, or five years in Scotland.

Firms will have to keep in mind that the claim will not just reflect the workers making the claim. “If the women succeed, any Co-op male retail workers will be able to in effect ‘piggyback’ the successful result and get an increase in their pay as well,” he advised

Paul Holcroft, managing director at Croner, suggested that firms concerned about equal pay issues introduce pay gap reporting. Not only is it a useful way of evaluating the salaries of employees from different genders, it can help firms proactively take steps to ensure pay parity, he explained.

“Employers that pay their staff equally minimise the risk of pay-related grievances and discrimination claims,” he explained. “Doing so also contributes towards an improved company culture, supporting diversity and inclusion, which helps to boost staff motivation, retention and productivity.”

Holcroft added that, while employers do not need to disclose the wages of individual employees, clear salary structures and pay progression schemes can improve transparency and integrity within an organisation.

Tom Hewitt, a solicitor in the employment team at Leigh Day, said: “We hope that Co-op recognises that they can no longer deny that the work store workers do is of equal value to that of their distribution centre colleagues.”