ASOS employees have spoken out about their fears of working amidst the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK. The UK distribution centre, located in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, employs 4,000 workers, with approximately 500 members of staff on-site per shift. Employees report continuing to work alongside others on narrow aisles, and sharing communal spaces such as toilets, canteens and bus services, where it is ‘impossible to socially distance’.
Over 98% of the 460 workers surveyed by the GMB Union admitted feeling unsafe, with the union alleging that the retailer is totally disregarding government advice about social distancing in the workplace. Employees have also expressed concern about the retailer’s failure to provide Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser, and have alleged that the retailer has even prohibited the use of facemasks due to them not being a part of the uniform.
As well as failing to comply with acceptable safety standards, ASOS is also refusing to utilise the government’s furlough scheme, which supports companies in paying their staff during sickness and self -isolation. Consequently, if employees need to take time off, they are only entitled to the weekly £94.25 statutory sick pay, creating major financial insecurity and forcing employees into continuing to work, despite some showing symptoms of the virus.
Many other UK-based fashion retailers, including TK Maxx, Next and River Island have demonstrated how companies can handle the crisis responsibly, by putting the safety of their employees first and temporarily closing their sites in an act of protection. In contrast, ASOS is refusing to put a hold on its operations. Speaking on behalf of ASOS, chief executive Nick Beighton has said that the retailer is ‘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’. However, the retailer’s total disregard for the working conditions of its staff suggests that it is clearly enjoying the boost in profits at the expense of its employees’ health and wellbeing.
In the midst of the pandemic, a number of other fashion giants, including Prada, Gucci, YSL and Versace are channelling their efforts towards the global fight against the virus. Spanish retailer Zara has pledged to donate 300,000 facemasks by the end of the week, whilst Sweden-based H&M, has rearranged its supply chains to produce PPE for hospitals and healthcare workers.
It is hoped that UK-based brands might follow suit, with the British Fashion Council reaching out to those with production capacity to request that they contribute to tackling the profound shortages of PPE that the NHS are currently experiencing. However, amidst the admirable sea of altruistic fashion initiatives, British-based ASOS continues to operate full steam ahead, reaping in the profits that are stemming from a spike in boredom-fuelled shopping.
It is about time that ASOS is held accountable for its mishandling of the situation. The most powerful way to protest the profit-fuelled mistreatment of employees is to boycott the company altogether. It could be worth considering holding off on purchasing that post-lockdown dress or the flashy pair of trainers that are saved in your wish-list, and rechannelling that money towards a local fashion retailer or charity shop when shops are able to reopen.
It is the smaller businesses that are suffering the greatest financial hardship during this time, and giving them your custom is a great way to show solidarity and help them to get back up and running. Purchasing from local retailers will have a far more positive impact on individual lives and local economies than continuously buying from the irresponsible fast fashion giants, and there has never been a better time to channel our support towards smaller, more sustainable fashion retailers.
You can sign the GMB union’s letter to ASOS CEO Nick Beighton petitioning for its temporary closure here. Let’s ensure that these multi-million pound companies are left to face the consequences of their inhumane actions, even after the pandemic has passed.
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