ASOS, one of the UK’s biggest online fashion retailers, has denied it is “anti-union” after workers and unions complained of management bullying and poor pay and conditions at the company’s huge warehouse.
The row echoes that of Amazon workers in Germany who are currently on strike at three different logistic centres over a long-running salary and conditions dispute with the online retail giant.
ASOS, which serves 7.1 million active customers worldwide and is set to turn over £1 billion ($1.6 billion) by 2015, employs over 2,000 permanent warehouse staff, as well as hundreds of agency workers to deal with huge Christmas demand.
Yet the workers currently packing millions of last-minute festive gifts say conditions at ASOS’s Yorkshire ’fulfilment centre’ are exhausting and exploitative.
One former worker told Equal Times: “It was like hell. It was really intense. The pressure was on all the time. People were getting shouted at continually because they didn’t get up to their quotas. We were regularly frisked. The searches were inappropriate and degrading.
“I have worked in a lot of warehouses in my life. But I have never worked in one that treats people so badly. In the end, I walked out. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
During the Christmas season, warehouse staff can work up to six ten-hour shifts a week. Yet despite walking miles every day, they say they are only allowed to take a 45-minute break, of which 15 minutes is spent walking to the rest area. Half an hour of the break is unpaid.
Warehouse workers are paid a starting wage of £6.41 ($10.45) an hour – just ten pence more than the UK minimum wage. There is no extra pay for working on public holidays.
A flexi system, operated during periods of high demand, extends shifts with just two hours’ notice. There is no overtime for permanent workers.
Staff use holiday leave to take Christmas Day off, even though this is the only day the warehouse is closed.
Workers allege that management regularly fail to accurately record holiday entitlement, and avoid taking on permanent staff.
“Speak out and get pushed out”
Phil Bown, Unite Regional Organiser for North East Yorkshire and Humberside, said: “Everybody who works in the ASOS warehouse is allowed the very minimum under UK legislation.
“We do have members there. But it is going to be very, very difficult. There is a culture in the warehouse that if you speak out, you get pushed out.”
Unite is hopeful it can work with contractor Norbert Dentressangle (ND), which took over the management of the warehouse in August as part of a £100 million ($160 million), three-year deal.
Bown said: “Although the contractor has changed, you still have the same people in there. And it is still run in a very strict way. The management are paid well, with efficiency bonuses. They should treat our staff with some sort of respect. But they don’t want to do that.”
The five-storey warehouse, which has 26 miles (42 kilometres) of walkways and is the size of six football pitches, is built on the site of a former coal mine in Grimethorpe, Barnsley. The village has struggled since the decline of the UK mining industry. The year after the closure of its last mine in 1993, Grimethorpe was named the poorest village in England.
The ASOS warehouse has provided crucial jobs. But Bown said the recession – and sweeping welfare reforms – has created such an urgent need for investment that local politicians have ignored problems at ASOS.
“Many people are desperate. But you can’t feed a family on £6.41 ($10.45) an hour. This company is relying on the government to subside people’s wages with other benefits.”
Councillor Stephen Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, said conditions within the warehouse are reasonable, and that ASOS are providing more permanent contracts.
“It is not unusual to see this level of pay in this sector.
“They want to become the employer of choice. And clearly there are other things that they need to do if they want to achieve that. If they can give people an improved salary we would want to encourage that.”
John Williams, Business Unit Director at Norbert Dentressangle Logistics UK, said: “All pay rates and associated terms and conditions are discussed and agreed with the colleague representatives on site.
“We strongly reject any suggestion that the managerial style in the warehouse is "anti-union", and have a history of working in partnership with a number of trade unions.”
Mark Holland, ASOS’s Supply Chain Director, said: “The operation has created thousands of jobs since 2011, many of which have been filled by people who were previously unemployed.
“We have invested more than £20 million (US$33 million) in the site. We also operate a community investment programme, supporting local initiatives by young people in the arts, music, fashion, education and sport.”