An intriguing new battle over equal pay is taking place at the supermarket

Fresh fight.
Fresh fight.
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo
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The bright, tidy aisles of a grocery store—or thousands of grocery stores, rather—are the newest battleground in the fight for pay equality.

The BBC reports that Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, is facing the prospect of a £4 billion ($5.6 billion) claim involving roughly 100 women who work in its stores as shop assistants and say they’re not compensated fairly because of their gender. Most of the women earn £8 an hour, whereas pay for the men ranges from £8.50 to £11, according to the lawyers bringing the case, who say they have also heard from more than a thousand other female workers with the same complaint. An hourly gap of about £3 adds up to several thousand pounds a year for a full-time worker.

But the claim sits apart from most other allegations of gender pay discrimination—because in this case, the women are working in stores, while the higher-paid men are working in the company’s distribution warehouses. The question is whether their different jobs, in separate locations, are of equal value. If so, the claim could cost Tesco £20,000 ($28,000) per worker in back pay over six years.

As the BBC notes, British workers doing “jobs that require comparable skills, have similar levels of responsibility, and are of comparable worth to the employer” must, under law since 1984, be rewarded equally. According to the lawyers representing the women, the difference in pay has been a result of inherent gender bias, and many tasks like lifting and carrying items are duties required both in stores and in the warehouses. A Tesco spokesperson told the BBC that the companies “work[s] hard to make sure all our colleagues are paid fairly and equally for the jobs they do.”

The fight at Tesco isn’t actually the first of its kind, but it is the largest, by company size. Similar actions have been taken against fellow grocery chains Sainsbury’s and Asda, the latter of which involved nearly 20,000 people and ultimately was decided in favor of the female shopkeepers who said their work was comparable to that of male workers in warehouses. (Asda will appeal the ruling later this year.)

If the Asda precedent holds and the female Tesco workers win their case, it will set new standards for the way companies think about pay and gender—a question that gets all the more critical when considering how much the world is currently reshaping its industries altogether, thanks to the rise of automation. That’s a trend with implications for workers of any gender, but the traditional differences in work roles could make the impact more severe for men than for women.