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Asos accused of enforcing "deeply exploitative" working practices

By Vivian Hendriksz

30 Sep 2016

London - Concerns over working conditions in Asos's distribution centre have caught the media's attention once more. In spite of previously refuting allegations made by MP Owen Smith concerning poor working practices occurring its distribution centre in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, the online retailer is caught in a media storm over working conditions once more following an investigative piece published by BuzzFeed.

A photo posted by ASOS (@asos) on

According to a lengthy, long-form article published by BuzzFeed on Thursday, based on three months of investigative work, employees at Asos's warehouse are subject to frequent and irregular work searches, extreme levels of surveillance, pressured to reach high targets, and stuck on flexibility work contracts. In addition, workers are said to be reluctant to take regular toilet or water drinking breaks in fear of missing their target and afraid to take days off as their contracts can be terminated at a moment notices.

Employment at Asos Barnsley warehouse said to be "hazardous to workers' health"

Other issues which arose in the article include docking of pay for arriving late, poor management, unreliable working hours and unpaid overtime as workers are given time off in lieu of extra pay. Following the publication of the article, trade union GMB issued a statement, calling Asos out for exposing its workers to hazardous working conditions. "These reports show that employment at Asos is not only stressful, invasive, and deeply exploitative but is also hazardous to workers’ health," said Neil Derrick, GMB Regional Secretary.

"Ignoring the concerns of GMB members has now become downright dangerous. Health and safety issues, round the clock, in-your-face surveillance, impossible targets and unfair contracts have created a damaging, anxiety-ridden workplace and our members have been under the cosh for too long," he added. "[The] GMB calls on the Business Select Committee to investigate these incidents as a matter of urgency before any more harm can be done to the workforce at Asos."

A photo posted by ASOS (@asos) on

Logistics firm XPO, which oversees operations in the distribution centre, has since disputed the allegations made. The firm stresses that its workers are paid for all hours they work and that they have made it their mission ensure a "safe and healthy working environment." In fact, the team at Barnsley was recently awarded a gold award by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents earlier this month.

"We are disappointed that false allegations continue to be made about the Barnsley warehouse," said an XPO Logistics spokesperson. "We have an independently elected colleague forum in place to ensure we are maintaining these standards. To correct the record, the number of comfort breaks an employee takes is not a factor in evaluating performance. We are also fully compliant with the national minimum wage and national living wage, and do not employ anyone in our warehouses on a zero-hours contract. We invited the independent public body ACAS to review our annualised hours scheme before we implemented it and were met with approval."

Asos and XPO dispute allegations made against working practices in Barnsley

Asos has also disputed the allegations made. "There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information," said a spokesperson for Asos in a statement. "This upsets us, but more importantly, it upsets the people who work there."

The online fashion retailer also highlighted a number of positive implementations it has made with XPO to support workers, such as its 3 million pound cooling system, free mental health support and awareness training and subsidised food offering. "Ultimately, Aso and XPO both care deeply about our people and that's why we have chosen to partner with them."

However, their rebuttals were not enough to satisfy MP Iain Wright, chair of the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select committee, who has confirmed they will now examine the allegations made concerning working practices at the Barnsley centre. The distribution centre and Asos will now be included in a wider inquiry into modern day working practices in the UK which will be launched in January.

The inquiry aims to explore "what type of employment structures and economic models we want in this country", said Wright to BuzzFeed and will focus on employment practices within the logistics and distribution sectors and to what extent companies are providing "modern, decent, and dignified working conditions...We want more jobs, but we want meaningful and dignified employment," he added.

Images: Asos