Thousands of Tesco employees across Tayside and Fife could claim up to £38 million in a legal dispute over equal pay.
A group of current and former employees of the supermarket have mounted a challenge seeking back pay as store staff are paid up to £3 per hour less than those in warehouses and distribution centres.
Although the pay is not determined by gender, the UK-wide Tesco Action Group is arguing this breaches the Equality Act 2010 as store workers are predominantly female, whereas most warehouse staff are men.
In Tayside and Fife, campaigners estimate around 7,600 past and present employees could be entitled to a claim, with potential payouts worth just over £38 million in total.
Tesco management say there is a difference in the skills and demands required in warehouses and distribution centres to warrant higher pay and refute the suggestion it is related to gender.
Edward Parkes, a solicitor with Harcus Sinclair UK, acting on behalf of Tesco Action Group, disagrees.
He said: “It seems pretty clear that staff are being paid from £1 to £1.50 less, which is a substantial difference for work which is pretty similar.
“The distribution centre is seen to be harder work but break it down to its simplest form – in the centre you take products from shelves, put them on a pallet then load it on to a van and in the shop you unload it from the van, on to pallets then stack it on the shelves, so it’s very similar.
“Equal pay claims can take the form that the role is very similar to another, there is no material difference or that the work is of equal value, which is the claim the vast majority of our clients are making.”
He also pointed out there are a number of skills needed to work in shops which are not required in warehouses, including working on tills, customer service and having knowledge about products.
Across the UK, there are around 10,000 current claimants but this only equates to around 4% of those who could be entitled, which Mr Parkes put down to fear of perceived repercussions.
Preliminary hearings have been held at the Watford Employment Tribunal Hearing Centre but solicitors expect the case to take a number of years and hope Tesco will gradually tweak pay in the meantime, until they reach equality.
Mr Parkes said store staff being paid less than elsewhere reflects long-standing discrimination in many careers.
“It comes from historical discrimination that so-called women’s jobs are not as difficult as ones typically carried out by men.
“For example, dinner ladies being paid less than bin men – the argument for that is being a bin man is harder because of bad weather, hard labour and things like that but in reality, sometimes the weather is quite nice and machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, whereas dinner ladies are consistently working in hot and uncomfortable environments.
“The stereotypical five Cs considered women’s jobs – cleaning, catering, clerical, cashiering and childcare – are all associated with low pay.”
Individual claims could be worth £10,200 each, or £1,700 per year for a maximum of six years.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We work hard to ensure that we reward our colleagues fairly for the jobs they do.
“The pay in our stores and in our distribution centres is the same for colleagues doing the same jobs regardless of gender.
“There are fundamental differences between the jobs in our stores versus those in 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.”
‘I saw the claim and decided to go for it’
One of the claimants, who asked not to be named, worked for Tesco in Forfar for 13 years.
The former employee said: “I saw the claim on Facebook and decided to go for it.
“I don’t know how much I could get but I wanted to go in for it because I worked really hard for Tesco so I don’t think I should have been paid less.
“I was always told how hard I worked when I was there, a manager once said I was like a Clydesdale horse.
“I’m not saying the ones in the warehouse don’t work hard but I don’t think anyone can say they worked harder than us. They loaded the cage and we unloaded them, so what is the difference? If anything unloading is harder because you have to start from the top rather than loading when you start from the bottom and can throw stuff on top.
“I loved my job in Tesco but it was a lot of work, we had 100 cages to unload and get on the shelves and it had to be done between 10 and six.
“I haven’t heard much about the claim since I put it in so I’ll see what happens. I thought more people would have gone in for it but maybe that will come.”