In the Age Of Amazon, of course, everything has changed. Small ethical retailers are able to advertise and sell their wares to customers across the globe. A world of fashion is at our fingertips. Choice and price has never been better.
But there's a darker side to the retail revolution. Slaking our thirst for online purchases has meant the growth of gigantic fulfilment centres where the items we order are picked, packed and despatched. Fast turnaround of orders means tight picking targets. For the people that work in these centres, that can mean a working day where breaks are discouraged, and any infraction can lead to a loss of earnings.
Buzzfeed News has just released a scathing exposé of the fulfilment centre for online fashion giant Asos, based in Grimethorpe, Yorkshire. It reveals a world where deadlines are the only metric for success, and that workers that cannot maintain the blistering pace find themselves 'deselected' for shifts. In an economic climate where Asos is the only game in Grimethorpe, that can mean facing a very uncertain future.
Picking targets can be as high as 160 items an hour, from a warehouse that has nearly 26 miles of walkways. Failure to meet those targets will frequently see workers pulled up to management offices to explain themselves. If that target line slips further, supervisors discourage staff from taking tea or toilet breaks.
The uncertainty of the so-called 'flex' system run by Transline, who employ agency workers for the centre, is another source of tension. Asos employees can be stood down or expected to work overtime at very short notice. Workers claim it's a one-way street–many have 40 hours or more overtime in the bank, with no sign of it being reimbursed either in payment or time off in lieu.
Monitoring of staff is both pervasive and invasive. CCTV is everywhere. Staff are subject to mandatory searches, and even random pat-downs from security personnel. ASOS claims this is because of the high value of some of the items that pickers will handle. But that culture of mistrust rolls both ways. As one worker at Grimethorpe says:
“We are all being treated like thieves, from the start and all the time. Higher management and HR seem to say, ‘We’ve got 4,000 employees so probably we’ve got 4,000 thieves.”
Asos argue that they have invested massively in an area that has suffered from unemployment following the closure of the Grimethorpe pits in the early 90s. They also shrug off complaints as coming from a tiny percentage of disaffected staff.
This is not the story told by service worker's union GMB, who have a strong presence on the site. Deanne Ferguson for the organisation says:
“I say to people when they get a job at Asos that they’ve left their ambitions at the door, because you go in and you’re worked like a robot. Transline are churning out workers like you would not believe. There are hundreds of hundreds of people in that place – thousands – and they’re just not treated fairly.”
Our View: every Christmas we see horror stories coming from the huge fulfilment centres that feed online retail giants like Amazon. We know that staff are treated without respect, and expected to work long but uncertain hours for little more than minimum wage.
But it's a complex situation. As consumers, we blithely expect items to come through the door with no more effort than the poke at a tablet screen. The power of a piece like the Buzzfeed News exposé, which I urge you all to read, is that it makes us think a little about the complex systems that go into something that we all take for granted. Above all, it gives us a reason to care. We simply can't use the excuse that worker abuse means nothing to us for cultural reasons, or that it's so far away. The poor treatment of ASOS employees is right here, right now. And we need to give a damn about that.