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ASOS In­ves­ti­ga­tion Claims: How Long Will We Con­tinue to Over­look the Hu­man?

When Asos brought its su­per­sized ware­house to Grimethorpe, just out­side Barns­ley in United King­dom, the for­mer coalmin­ing town be­came the cen­ter of the world’s fastest grow­ing fash­ion em­pire.

Asos founder and for­mer CEO Nick Robert­son said in 2008 he needed the fash­ion em­pire to be the “Ama­zon of fash­ion”, and the busi­ness has be­come re­lent­lessly, since it was launched in 2000, hav­ing es­tab­lished across 241 mar­kets. In 2015, it hit over £1.15 bil­lion sales. Presently the fash­ion em­pire is tar­get­ing £2.5 bil­lion yearly sales by 2020. In the four months to June 2016 alone, Asos’ sales topped £514.6 mil­lion, a 30% in­crease from the same pe­riod the prior year.

Whether you are in San Fran­cisco or London an army of ware­house work­ers have as­sem­bled the gar­ments, shoes, and jewelry to be sent the world over and de­liv­ered to your doorstep in two work­ing days. XPO runs the dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter on be­half of Asos and a com­pany called Transline han­dles the re­cruit­ment part.

To take care of con­sumers’ vo­ra­cious de­mand for fast fash­ion, the Grimethorpe site works day in and day out; as dayshift ware­house work­ers leave, overnight work­ers come in, pre­pared to dis­patch or­ders from 26 miles of walk­ways.

In a three-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Buz­zfeed News talked with cur­rent and for­mer Asos ware­house work­ers and got ob­tained phone record­ing, in­ter­nal memos and text mes­sages that un­cover the ex­ceed­ingly pres­sur­ized con­di­tions re­quired in get­ting on­line re­quests from the com­pany’s ware­house to con­sumers over the world within 48 hours.

Tem­po­rary and per­ma­nent staff say they are bur­dened with ar­du­ous tar­gets to process high vol­umes of or­ders ev­ery hour, and some say this even dis­cour­ages them from stop­ping to drink wa­ter or use the wash­room. More­over, the man­agers have even asked that they don’t so to­wards the end of the shifts.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion comes as Asos finds its work­ing prac­tices un­der scru­tiny. A month ago La­bor MP Owen Smith cen­sured the com­pany’s use of flex­i­ble work­ing con­tracts, and the ex­change union GMB called the House of Com­mons busi­ness se­lect board of trus­tees an in­quiry into the firm af­ter com­plaints about work­ing prac­tices at the Grimethorpe ware­house and “in­va­sive mon­i­tor­ing and sur­veil­lance” of staff.

It comes in the midst of grow­ing pub­lic con­cern over the use of flex­i­ble con­tracts fol­low­ing ex­posés about the treat­ment of work­ers by com­pa­nies such as De­liv­eroo, Her­mes and Sports Di­rect.

In the Asos in­ves­ti­ga­tion car­ried out by Buz­zfeed, it was found that:

Asos su­per­vi­sors live-mon­i­tor the quan­tity of or­ders put through the hand scan­ners users by ware­house work­ers, who can be rep­ri­manded if they fall be­hind.

Work­ers say they can’t take reg­u­lar wa­ter breaks or toi­let breaks be­cause of the con­stant fear of miss­ing tar­gets.

Agency staff say they are kept on con­tracts they be­lieve are ex­ploita­tive as they take into con­sid­er­a­tion them to have as­sign­ments fin­ished with­out no­ti­fi­ca­tion, to be sent home with­out pay, or to be ad­vised not to come in if man­age­ment chooses to can­cel their shift at any time.

Staff on “an­nu­al­ized hours” con­tracts say their shifts can like­wise be crossed out or stretched out at short no­tice un­der an ar­range­ment that al­lows Asos to “flex up” and “flex down”, and that ex­tra hours have been ad­e­quately un­paid with work­ers be­ing given time off as op­posed to money for time worked.

Work­ers have had their as­sign­ments ended af­ter fall­ing sick at work or tak­ing some time off to take care for sick rel­a­tives.

Staff claim that se­cu­rity on the site is in­tru­sive, and they are even made to re­move their shoes for spot checks and searched upon en­ter­ing the toi­lets.

Pay is docked if a worker ar­rives at the ware­house even a mo­ment late.

Lo­gis­tics com­pany XPO, which runs the ware­house, ques­tions the al­le­ga­tions. It says work­ers are paid for ev­ery sin­gle minute worked and that it at­tempts to guar­an­tee a best-in­class and safe work­place.

Em­ployee prac­tices are un­der scru­tiny fol­low­ing the rel­e­va­tions about the treat­ment of work­ers at Bri­tish re­tail­ing team Sports Di­rect. The Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion and Skills Com­mit­tee said in a 37-page-re­port that the re­tailer was re­gard­ing em­ploy­ees as ‘com­modi­ties’ rather than hu­man be­ings.

Food de­liv­ery ser­vices, UBEREATS and De­liv­eroo have both as of late dis­sented over their com­pen­sa­tion struc­ture, in the most re­cent sign that dis­tress among work­ers in the gig econ­omy is grow­ing. Sports Di­rect is un­der scru­tiny by HMRC for pay­ing work­ers less than the na­tional min­i­mum wage.

The Com­mit­tee heard a se­ries of records of em­ployee mis­treat­ment, in­clud­ing staff be­ing pun­ished for mat­ters such as tak­ing a short break to drink wa­ter and for tak­ing some time off work when sick.

Here are some of the most stun­ning facts heard by the board: An em­ployee got an email lay­ing him off, with no clar­i­fi­ca­tion, sim­ply paid off and a pay state­ment af­ter he had taken off sick for a few weeks be­cause of ill health.

A fe­male worker from staff said she was be­ing forced to dis­cuss her pe­ri­ods pub­licly (she had been off sick, be­cause of pe­riod pains, hav­ing rou­tinely worked 12-hour days).

The em­ploy­ees were be­ing made to check out so wages won’t over bud­get plan yet they were made to con­tinue work­ing, so they weren’t be­ing paid for all of the hours they did.

The area man­ager would send an email on Mon­day morn­ings with a list of to­tal hours worked by each of his man­agers the week be­fore. Who­ever did the min­i­mum would get a lec­ture on things like now show­ing com­mit­ment. This would gen­er­ally be in the form of a rant with every­body else copied into the email. Any­thing less than 55 hours a week wasn’t con­sid­ered pro­duc­tive.

Staff on zero-hour con­tracts were be­ing forced to work a fur­ther three hours with­out pay.

A to­tal of 110 am­bu­lances were dis­patched to the Shire­brook ware­house’s post­code be­tween 1 Jan­uary 2013 and 19 April 2016 with 50 cases named “lifethreat­en­ing”, in­clud­ing breath­ing prob­lems, fit­ting and strokes, chest pain and con­vul­sions, and five calls from ladies suf­fer­ing preg­nancy is­sues, in­clud­ing one lady who con­ceived a child in the toi­let in the ware­house.

In the past few months, couri­ers for Ubereats and De­liv­eroo have been or­ga­niz­ing all-day strikes over pro­posed changes in the way staffers are treated. Ubereats has de­creased couri­ers; rates since the ser­vice launched in June in London. Work­ers are presently call­ing for Ubereats to ex­e­cute pay­ment rates equiv­a­lent to a liv­ing wage of £9.40 an hour.

Of course, cor­rupt bosses are to be blamed for it. To­day it’s never been eas­ier to over­look the hu­man fac­tor, and that be­gins with us. When we shop, we do it on­line and it’s picked and pressed by a face­less worker in ware­houses like ASOS, Sports Di­rect and Ama­zon.

When your de­liv­ery ar­rives, we dis­re­gard that a real per­son was in­volved in the process, es­pe­cially in to­day’s age where so many of these tasks are now be­ing per­formed by ro­bots. The ques­tion is: how long will com­pa­nies con­tinue to over­look the hu­man fac­tor, be­cause it is the fastest and the cheap­est op­tion avail­able?

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