For years, Wendy Arundale was nicknamed Little Miss Asda. At one point her whole family, including her husband and two children, worked at the supermarket. She dyed her hair pink for an Asda breast cancer fundraiser. She ran a hotdog stand for Asda. The 62-year-old grandmother of nine from Middlesbrough spent 32 years of her life working at Asda. It’s fair to say she was a dedicated employee.
“It makes me feel sad, and I do get bitter now sometimes thinking of how I was treated,” she said, speaking to the Observer. “My husband was paid 80p more than me an hour. I was close to crying at times because I wasn’t valued. The girls were paid terrible compared to the men. It makes you feel stupid. I really loved my job, but I don’t know why I put up with feeling like this for so long.”
Arundale is one of 35,000 current and former Asda employees taking the supermarket, owned by Walmart, to the supreme court tomorrow. Theirs has been an astonishing 13-year fight – a landmark case that is the UK’s biggest equal pay claim without precedent in the private sector.
This week the court will consider whether Asda shopfloor workers, most of whom are women, should have been paid in line with male distribution staff for the purposes of equal pay. The latest appeal is Asda’s final chance to argue that the roles are not comparable. The judgment is expected in the autumn, but solicitors at Leigh Day, the law firm representing the women, are confident.
“All five judges who have looked at this case before have decided in the shop assistants’ favour, so we are confident the supreme court will agree with them,” said Michael Newman, a partner at Leigh Day. “We know society as a whole appreciates what key workers are doing, and we hope this will extend to Asda accepting that the women in the shops can compare themselves to men in the depots.”
The firm is also representing clients from Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Co-op in similar equal pay cases. If the five supermarkets lose, they could be ordered to pay all eligible staff more than an estimated £8bn.
Linda Harper (who didn’t want to use her real name) worked part- time, three days a week, for 26 years at Asda in Sunderland. Now 74, she said she had lots of fond memories and friends from that time, but still felt disgusted at how her pay was justified. “There was so much tension when they opened the big warehouse in Washington [a distribution centre in Tyne and Wear] and everyone knew we were doing the same jobs in the store, but the men were getting £3 more an hour. Can you believe it? It was horrible. Everybody was on edge. They just got away with it.”
Men were getting £3 more an hour. Can you believe it? It was horrible, everybody was on edge. Asda got away with it.Linda Harper, former Asda employee
Harper began working at 15 and had committed to retail all her working life, with long stints at Marks & Spencer and at Joplings, a local department store. She claimed: “None of them treated [me] like Asda, especially after Walmart took it on.”
A keen gardener and a busy grandmother, Harper is determined to see a win. “We keep getting closer and they tell us we’re getting there, but it keeps going on to more appeals. I do think about it a lot. [The case] started off with 21 people and it just got bigger and bigger.”
This week’s case will be crucial in the battle the Asda employees hope to win, but even if the judgment goes in their favour the case could go on for a while yet. Lawyers for the Asda staff will need to go on to argue that comparable roles should be paid equally, and that will take yet more time.
An Asda spokesperson said: “This equal value case is extremely complex so it is vital the issues are given the legal scrutiny they deserve. This latest judgement was to address factual disputes in the job roles at our stores and depots, and not to make any findings over whether the jobs are of equal value.
“Our hourly rates of pay in stores are the same for female and male colleagues, and this is equally true in our depots. Pay rates in stores differ from pay rates in distribution centres because the demands of the jobs in stores and the jobs in the distribution centre are very different; they operate in different market sectors and we pay the market rate in those sectors regardless of gender.”
Neither Harper nor Arundale shop at Asda now, despite the discounts on their loyalty cards. “I go to Lidl,” said Harper. For both of them, the principle of equal pay is now as important as their pay-outs.
“That money would have made a difference to my life, but it’s not just the money now – it’s about all the other girls we trained and who are still there,” said Arundale.
Now retired, partly due to arthritis, Arundale said she and her husband, John, used to row about work. “If I can do something a man can, I will do it,” she says. “And it should be fair.”