Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of items you buy from popular retailers? We are all guilty of looking of wanting a particular item of clothing so much, or wanting a completely ‘new wardrobe’ that we won’t spare a second thought for anything apart from how good it will look when we’ve bought it, the cheaper the better. If we take a moment to stop and think about where the things we have bought have come from or who made it possible for you to quickly buy your items of choice, there really is a lot more to it than we think. Recently, there has been a great scandal around well-known sports retailer Sports Direct and the payment of its workers as well as the factory workers of popular online store ASOS. The claims that they are unfairly treated and underpaid were just the start of it, and we are looking further into what actually happens behind the scenes of shopping.
ASOS is a much-loved fashion brand and online retailer that is used by millions of people everyday. Their popularity derives from a number of factors, including their budget friendly prices, their huge list of much-loved fashion brands, their tendency to always be offering some kind of discount or sale and they’re free and usually considerably speedy delivery process. Using ASOS is a great way of avoiding the high street shops battle and also gives you access to clothing from high street brands that you may not have in your area. All in all, ASOS makes for an all round winner when it comes to buying their reasonable quality clothing. But what is just beneath the surface? Reports have emerged that conditions in the ASOS warehouses are becoming more and more like slavery, with workers rights completely out of the window (there have been reports that they have even been refused toilet breaks in fear of targets being missed). It’s all well and good that ASOS are capable of delivering such a speedy service, but do people ever stop and wonder why it is so efficient, and with what expense?
Buzzfeed news conducted a three-month investigation following reports that a female member of the warehouse staff had suffered a panic attack due to the intense environment in which she was working. To make matters worse, she was later dismissed. What they found was a complete lack of consideration for workers of ASOS and a desperate need for change amongst the community. The root of the problem seems to be the somewhat unrealistic targets that are set by the managers, and in a bid to make sure all of these targets are fulfilled (all orders need to be dispatched within 48 hours, even sooner if a customer has paid for next day delivery) workers are missing out on basic rights such as drinking water and going to the toilet. This essentially means their job is affecting their health. ASOS has come under public scrutiny leading up to, and in the wake of, the investigation, with Labour leadership contender Owen Smith criticising their use of flexible contracts which means there is little to no stability for the workers, with reports of shifts being cancelled last minute and workers being sent home with no pay. The greed of the ASOS bosses and their desperation to meet targets means constant invasive surveillance of workers which has now been deemed inappropriate by the House of Commons Business Select Committee.
After Buzzfeed conducted several interviews with current ASOS staff, one worker put everything into a nutshell and compared the treatment of workers to slavery. The discouragement of toilet and water breaks is justified by management claiming that even ’30 seconds’ are extremely important to the company. Buzzfeed found that agency staff are exploited further by being put on contracts that allow assignments to be ended without notice and also see ASOS using a flex up, flex down policy which allows management to take away or extend a shift at short notice, and reward workers with time off rather than money for any additional hours worked. Of course, pay is docked if an employee enters the building even a single minute late (15 minutes pay is traditionally docked for even 1 minute of lateness). Unsurprisingly, ASOS has denied any claims of exploitation and continues to list the positives to working for such a diverse and well-known brand, including language learning schemes, subsidised canteen food and a 3m pounds air con system to keep factories cool. It seems, that all of the mistreatment and unrealistic performance targets is a direct result of the ambitions to develop the ASOS empire, with the CEO himself once saying that he wanted ASOS to be the ‘Amazon of fashion.’
After months of speculation, it was finally admitted by Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley that staff that worked in the store did get paid less than the minimum wage. He is now facing a multi-million pound bill for his crimes, and, rightly so. The unfair treatment was first discovered after The Guardian conducted an investigation and found that the pay given to workers was below the legal requirement. The revelations have forced people to begin to question Mike Ashley’s competency as director of the company. As well as paying workers less than the minimum wage, there was also a number of other issues that were brought up in the court case against Sports Direct and these included; workers being docked 15 minutes pay for being one minute late, and general incompetency amongst all of the Sport’s Direct top management. It was claimed that Mike Ashley was running Sports Direct like a ‘Victorian Warehouse.’ HMRC itself was forced to investigate the minimum wage abuse and Mike Ashley has since confirmed that they are in talks to negotiate a deal for pay back to full-time workers. It has been stated that the fine issued to Mike Ashley and Sports Direct has the potential to one of the highest national minimum wage fines in history.
Naturally, after the parliamentary inquest into Mike Ashley’s company, he has received a lot of contempt and as a result lost a lot of business. People are offended by the total lack of respect and dignity his company has shown towards its workers, especially in 2016. Evidence suggested that Mr Ashley himself visited the Sports Direct headquarters in Derby around once a week so it seems impossible that he was not aware of what was going on around him, and because of this, he must be held accountable. It seems that once again the low cost items that we all know and love have come at a cost to the workers that make it all possible.