The real price of fashion: Asos accused of mistreating workers12 Oct 2016
In the wake of the recent Sports Direct scandal exposing poor treatment of workers, Asos has come under fire following a scathing report published by BuzzFeed News, resulting in calls for the BIS Committee to investigate. In addition to allegations of ‘Dickensian’ working conditions at their distribution centre in Barnsley, the online retail giant has been accused of hiring workers under exploitative contracts and implementing an overbearing security regime. Asos and XPO Logistics, the logistics service running the distribution centre, have vehemently denied all the allegations and insist that they have stayed within the limits of the law. But just how far does the law let them go?
During the course of a three-month undercover investigation, BuzzFeed claim that they uncovered poor treatment of both temporary and permanent staff, including:
(i) Management actively discouraging toilet or water breaks to avoid warehouse staff falling short of arduous targets;
(ii) Excessive security measures – BuzzFeed have claimed that when staff are allowed bathroom breaks, there is a chance they could be searched on entering the toilets. There have also been allegations that searches have extended to staff cars and personal lockers, and some members of staff have claimed that they have been told to remove their shoes mid-shift so that they can be searched;
(iii) Staff on ‘annualised hours’ contracts (a contract which pays a fixed sum for a fixed number of hours over a specific period) have had their hours extended under ‘flex’ clauses in their contracts, but some staff have claimed that they do not receive their pay for these extra hours for many months afterwards, if they receive payment at all;
(v) Provisions in agency contracts which allow Asos to end their assignments and cancel shifts without notice; and
(vi) Docking a quarter of workers’ hourly pay if they are a single minute late for their shift.
Asos and XPO have denied any wrongdoing or mistreatment. Both organisations claim to ‘care deeply about [their] people’ and XPO has stated that the contracts and practices at the warehouse are ‘fully compliant with employment law.’
A six-page letter was published on Asos’ website following the allegations. In response to the alleged curtailing of breaks, Asos has claimed that ‘people can take toilet and water breaks whenever they want’, and that there is training in place to support workers in achieving targets. The security measures are apparently covered by a clause in staff contracts which allow searches to be carried out with ‘just cause’ – this is common in the logistics industry, where employee theft can be a problem.
XPO has defended their practice of ‘flexing up’ staff hours, stating the flexibility clause is necessary to meet the fluctuating needs of the business. The company has claimed that the staff received time off in lieu for any ‘flexed up’ hours and that all outstanding hours were reconciled at the end of each business year ‘to ensure that no hours owed to colleagues or the business.’ Both XPO and Asos have said that agency workers are treated fairly and ending assignments early would only be considered as a last resort. XPO has confirmed that it does apply deductions if staff are late, but that ‘our colleagues are paid for every minute that they work.’
Lessons for employers
Much of Asos’ and XPO’s responses to the allegations are that their working practices and contractual provisions are industry standards, such as the tight security measures and flexible hours in workers’ contracts. But, as Asos has learned the hard way, common industry practices can be taken too far and result in significant damage to an employer’s reputation and goodwill.
The contractual ‘flex’ clauses have not been tested in an employment tribunal (yet), but the warehouse staff have argued that they cannot be within the law if they result in months of delay between the work being carried out and the worker being paid.
High levels of security may be justified in certain industries, but employers need to ensure that they strike a balance between protecting their business and invading staff privacy – even if a worker or employee agrees to reasonable searches in their contract, extreme levels of surveillance can be an abuse of this agreement.
Similarly, a worker’s contractual agreement to a reduction in their pay if they are late should not result in overly harsh deductions, particularly if they are already on a low hourly rate as this could result in their being paid below the national living wage. The full impact of BuzzFeed’s investigation is yet to be seen, but the damage to Asos’s brand and reputation will be difficult for the online retailer to repair.