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Asos under fire for unsafe working conditions during coronavirus outbreak

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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Fashion retailer Asos has taken criticism for staying online and open for business, following reports from the GMB Union that its warehouse staff were terrified about going to work, as they feel unsafe amid the coronavirus crisis.

The GMB Union released a statement saying that Asos were “playing Russian Roulette with people's lives” as they claimed the online retailer was refusing to enforce social distancing in its “packed” warehouse in Grimethorpe, Barnsley that they state has up to 4,000 workers.

They claim that workers reported no social distancing measures, a complicated clocking in system which means large numbers of people gather in a small area, and hundreds of workers all breaking for lunch at the same time.

Tim Roache, GMB General Secretary, said in a statement: “Conditions at Asos are scarcely believable – workers we’ve spoken to describe it as a ‘cradle of disease’. It’s absolutely horrifying, a real catalogue of shame.

“Here you’ve got people packed onto public transport, a lack of social distancing, thousands of workers going into one warehouse then back to their families - it’s only going to get worse with a huge sale promoted over the weekend. We no longer believe Asos can keep their workplace safe – they need to shut it down.”

Asos denies claims staff are unsafe during coronavirus outbreak

Asos has disputed these claims, with chief executive Nick Beighton stating in an open letter to its consumers that the online retailer was “following official directives and advice” from the government, as warehouses for online shopping are on the list of government exemptions that can stay open during the current shop closures.

Beighton added: “Most importantly, we're also protecting the safety of our team, customers, suppliers, delivery partners, and our communities at large.”

Asos has also added in a separate communication with its customers that “additional steps” were being taken to protect its warehouse staff, stating: “As well as ensuring social distancing in our warehouse and communal areas, we're staggering break and shift times, and have increased our already high standard of hygiene with more cleaning teams each shift, regular deep cleans and readily available hand sanitiser.”

Barnsley Council and Community Union satisfied that Asos complying with social distancing measures

Rumours have also been shared on social media that the warehouse was visited by three ambulances, suggesting that staff were ill, however, Barnsley Council which conducted an environmental and health inspection said in a statement that those reports were false.

Councillor Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, said: “In response to the concerns we received, our Regulatory Services visited the site on Friday 27 March and found that at the time of the visit there were various social distancing measures in place and at no point did our officer see any member of staff not in compliance with this.

“The company is following national government advice in terms of remaining operational, protecting the welfare of their employees and constantly reviewing how additional measures can be introduced where necessary.

“There are visual markers, frequent reminders, additional cleaners, new eating arrangements, dispersal of lockers and available hand sanitiser around the site.”

A spokesperson for Community the recognised union, which represents over 2,000 workers at the site, added: “We have been working with our members and the company for weeks to make improvements to the way the site operates, including introducing PPE and a new cleaning regime. We have been on site all day yesterday and have been there again today listening to our members’ concerns and instructing the company to take further action to improve safety, particularly around shift changes. If these changes cannot be implemented effectively and rapidly, then they should cease operating.

“There are clearly issues across the sector, and the government needs a sector-wide approach, which would also include the operations of delivery companies. It’s the unions’ role to ensure employers make workplaces safe and if they’re not, they shouldn’t be continuing operations.”

As well as protecting its warehouse workers Asos also said that its offices in the UK were asking for staff to work from home or “use staggered working hours for those who find that difficult” and added that they would be shooting products "more and more without models” as well as using Asos models and insiders to “photograph themselves from their homes, so they don't need to visit our studios”.

Over e-mail to FashionUnited, Asos responded to the allegations, which the retailer claims were made by a non-recognised union trying to recruit members, by stating: “We totally refute these allegations. They are false and do nothing more than serve to create panic and hysteria in an already uncertain time. In line with Government guidance, and with support from the Community Union and Barnsley Borough Council, we are striking the right balance between keeping our warehouse operational, for the good of our employees and the wider economy, and maintaining the health and safety of staff, which is always our number one priority.

"Since the lockdown, we have introduced a range of additional health and safety measures and the Environmental Health Officer, who visited the site on Friday, confirmed he was happy with the protocols we have in place.”

Image: courtesy of Asos

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