courtesy of VICE (edited by TFL)
People love ASOS: It's the world's most visited fashion site, and is reportedly set to turn over $1.5 billion this year. That's a lot of clothes, which means that people need to work hard to get this stuff out to customers. In October 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited the company's distribution warehouse in Grimethorpe near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, which is built on the site of a former coal mine. Cameron praised ASOS for providing much-needed jobs for a community desperate for investment. But when VICE News visited Grimethorpe recently, it was tough to feel so optimistic. In the dim light of the afternoon, the shutters of the high street shops were all closed, and only the grocery chain store Asda, owned by Walmart, was open. The streets were dead. While it's clear that new jobs were needed in the area, it's less clear if those jobs are actually all that great. Numerous former workers and unions compared the vast ASOS warehouse to a modern-day sweatshop. They told VICE News that bullying is rife, health and safety rules are ignored, targets are exhausting and impossible to reach, and managers refuse to allow unions access.
Between the summers of 2011 and 2013, long-term youth unemployment in Barnsley rose by 237 percent, and long-term unemployment rose by 113 percent. As the Barnsley area continues to struggle economically, ASOS's recruitment of large numbers of eastern European workers is causing resentment. A quick Google search reveals a list of Polish job ads for ASOS. When VICE News visited the warehouse, all the workers I spoke to outside were Romanian.
Complaints about the working conditions spanned across different nationalities. VICE News spoke to both Polish and British workers who talked about the poor working environment. Those whose job it is to select orders from the factory's stock push heavy trollies across five floors and walk miles per shift, with as little as half an hour's rest. The basic wage is £6.77 ($10) an hour.
The employees told VICE News they are exhausted by the demands of a bullying targets regime and a "flex" system, in which shifts are worked according to demand. Staff are told to work with just two hours' notice and to go home when they are not needed. "It's the worst system I've seen in my life," one ex-worker told VICE News. "People end up doing 90 to 100 hours a week, 12 to 13 days on the run. If somebody's face didn't fit they would soon have them out of there. They are on your case 24/7 until you snap. They rule the place with an iron fist."
One, who had worked in many similar warehouses, said that systems at ASOS are outdated and dangerous. "If you work the way you should it would be impossible to reach targets. People are threatened and encouraged to break health and safety rules — but if they report the accident they'll be disciplined for breaking those rules," he said.
Romanian ASOS workers smoked cigarettes in the fading light as they waited for their buses to Barnsley. They were reluctant to talk, but eventually said a few words. They told VICE News that local workers don't want to work at ASOS — but neither did they. Wages at home are around $295 per month, they said. "We are all exploited," one said. "But we all need the jobs."