‘Cradle of disease’: Asos warehouse staff reveal coronavirus fears


Asos has been criticised by staff who say they are scared to come to work at its distribution centre because they are not being sufficiently protected during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 98% of more than 460 workers who took part in a survey carried out by the GMB union said they felt unsafe at the group’s warehouse in Grimethorpe, Barnsley, even after new safety measures were introduced last week. About 4,000 people are employed at the warehouse with an average 500 working each shift.

Many workers at the online fashion retailer said it was not possible to fully meet government guidelines on maintaining two-metre distancing at the Barnsley site run by the logistics firm XPO for Asos, because of narrow aisles and shared facilities including a canteen, bus service and toilets used by hundreds of people on each shift.

They said the company had not provided sufficient supplies of protective gear such as gloves and hand sanitiser, while they fear colleagues would come into work while ill because they could claim only statutory sick pay, of just £94.25 a week, which was not enough to pay their bills.

Tim Roache, the GMB general secretary, said: 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.”

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“Here you’ve got people packed on to public transport, a lack of social distancing, thousands of workers going into one warehouse then back to their families.”

One staff member who took part in the survey said : “The rule of two-metre distance is simply impossible to follow if you want to move or do any work in there. This warehouse was absolutely not designed for it and it’s a fiction in practice.”

Staff sitting side by side in the Asos canteen.

Another worker spoken to by the Guardian said he and his partner had both continued to work even though they had health conditions which made them vulnerable to the virus.

“They told us last week that they don’t have enough money to pay holiday for us so if we don’t feel safe we can go home unpaid,” he said. “My partner asked about sanitiser and gloves and she was told ‘why not bring your own’?”

The worker said there was not enough soap in bathrooms and the canteen, and locker rooms were crowded. “The business we are working in is not essential. There is a pandemic so it is hard times. I don’t think somebody needs a bikini,” he said.

Community, the union which represents more than 2,000 workers at the Asos site, said it had been working with the company for weeks to improve operations including introducing protective gear and a new cleaning regime

“We have been on site all day 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. It’s the unions’ role to ensure employers make workplaces safe and if they’re not, they shouldn’t be continuing operations.”

Criticism of Asos’s operation comes after Next, Moss Bros and Net a Porter closed their websites after concerns about their ability to protect staff in their distribution centres.

Asos said social distancing protocols were in place across the Barnsley site, and in particular in locker rooms, the canteen and smoking area.

It said staff were required to sit at least two metres apart during meal breaks with a dedicated member of staff to enforce social distancing at break times and at the start and end of shifts.

Asos added that it had worked with Stagecoach to organise additional buses and staff should wait for another one if vehicles were busy.

Nick Beighton, the chief executive of the fashion chain, said: “We totally refute these allegations. They are false and do nothing more than serve to create panic and hysteria in an already uncertain time.

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“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.”

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Steve Houghton, the leader of Barnsley council, said its regulatory team had visited the warehouse on Friday and had not seen any problems with compliance with government distancing guidelines.

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