...risking it all for fashion
The fashion powerhouse ASOS – whose sales currently stand at £514.6million – is the next major retailer to find its working practices under scrutiny, following a 3-month investigation led by BuzzFeed News. After speaking to current and former ASOS warehouse workers and sifting through documents, text messages, and phone recordings, BuzzFeed News has exposed a culture of oppression and exploitation operating behind closed doors.
As a result of BuzzFeed’s investigation, the House of Commons business, innovation, and skills select committee is now set to explore the allegations made over ASOS’ working practices.
A crumbling workforce
It was around 10.30 pm when ASOS warehouse worker Joanne Goddard found herself struck by an overwhelming and unshakable panic during her shift. Feeling anxious about falling behind on her targets, she found herself speeding up and down the aisles of the Grimethorpe warehouse trying not to make any mistakes with customers’ orders.
In spite of trying to calm down, Joanne found herself quickly sinking into the depths of anxiety and stress. Somehow, she stumbled onto the third floor of the warehouse and informed a team leader that she was having a panic attack. Joanne’s only other memories of that night include her being taken to first aid and driven home.
A week after this incident, Joanne’s assignment at ASOS ended – not by her choice.
Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t alien to ASOS’ warehouse workers. Both agency workers and permanent staff have admitted to drowning in high volumes of orders every hour as well as being expected to hit impossible targets.
Big brother is watching
Aiming for a turnover of £2.5billion by 2020, ASOS’ plans for growth are relentlessly taking their toll on employees, who are struggling to hit their hourly targets. Joanne and her colleagues – who were responsible for collecting the items for customers’ orders – were expected to collect around 160 items every hour using unreliable hand scanners that were “constantly breaking.”
According to BuzzFeed:
- Managers reportedly live-monitor the number of orders put through the hand scanners that workers have to use – if they fail to meet their targets or fall behind, they may be reprimanded
- Staff have complained that on-site security is unnecessarily intrusive and “embarrassing” – workers are “treated like thieves” and subjected to random spot checks throughout the day
- If a member of staff arrives at work even 1 minute late, their pay is docked
“Management treat people like slaves”, one employee told BuzzFeed. Team leaders often told workers not to use the toilets or get anything to drink in the last hour of their shifts as “the last hour is very important for performance. Even 30 seconds is very important for the company.”
XPO, the global logistics organisation that’s responsible for running the distribution centre, has rejected these allegations, stating that it tries to maintain a “best-in-class and safe working environment.”
Overworked, underpaid, and exploited
As the fashion market is notoriously known for being fickle, ASOS is run reactively, meaning that if there’s a lull in sales the company will introduce flash sales and promotions aimed at attracting more customers.
Warehouse workers are then expected to meet these demands, and are usually subject to inconvenient, last-minute changes to their working hours. “If you cannot do the target, they come to you every hour and say you have to improve or you will get a performance management meeting with HR”, one employee stated.
BuzzFeed also discovered that:
- Agency workers believe that their contracts are exploitative, as their assignments can be ended without any notice, they can be sent home without being paid, or they can be asked not to come in if managers decide to cancel their shifts
- Other members of staff on ‘annualised hour’ contracts said that their shifts can be extended or cancelled at short notice, and that those who work extra hours are given time off in lieu rather than being paid – ASOS, however, provides no guarantee about when workers can take this time off
- Workers who fall ill at work or take time off to care for family members who are unwell have reportedly been let go from ASOS
One worker also claimed that after they collapsed at work and were taken to hospital, Transline – the company in charge of recruiting agency staff – terminated their employment due to a 4-day absence. Even when they took their discharge papers to work, the management team refused to reinstate them.
Responding to the investigation, a spokesperson for ASOS stated that the company takes “employment incredibly seriously and continue to say very clearly that what continues to be thrown at us is simply not true.”
They added that ASOS has invested £81million in the warehouse since 2011 and has created 567 new jobs.
“The mistreatment of employees by certain large companies, like ASOS and Sports Direct, has become widely publicised over the course of the last few weeks.”
“It’s unacceptable for companies to treat their staff unfairly and even put their health and well-being above the company’s profit margins. Large companies like ASOS don’t seem to realise that their workforce is an integral part of their success and without them it’s impossible for them to become a profitable business. This approach also gives other employers a bad name. It is my experience that most employers do seek to treat their employees respectfully and fairly.”
“Employees are often genuinely afraid of coming forward and reporting mistreatment because they don’t want to put their jobs at risk. Any employee who has been badly treated or dismissed unlawfully should seek advice from a legal expert about whether they can take legal action.”
“It’s also advisable for employers to review their internal working practices, to ensure that their employees are being treated fairly and lawfully.”
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