The last few weeks have provided a valuable lesson for workers in Britain and across the world. No doubt, few would have had their bosses on their Christmas card list before. But the coronavirus crisis has irrefutably shown that the bosses and their system have much bigger priorities than their workers’ lives: profit.
The ASOS warehouse in Barnsley is no exception to this. It is a workplace that already had a reputation for its exploitative conditions. Impossible targets; pressuring staff to work in unsafe ways; a culture of fear and intimidation; agency contracts allowing shifts to be cancelled at any or no notice; and poverty pay: all of this - and more - has been reported at the warehouse. As a former worker at the site, I can confirm them all to be 100% true.
The company’s callous disregard for staff following the coronavirus outbreak has been the real ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. As an online clothing distributor, few would consider ASOS to be an ‘essential’ service during the lockdown. Indeed, in-person clothing shops have all been closed down in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. As far as ASOS’ management is concerned, however, it is very much a case of business as usual.
Putting profit over lives
Given the quarantine, many people are stuck at home and have time to spare to go online. ASOS management therefore spied a great opportunity to make a quick profit at the expense of their staff.
All staff have been ordered to work as usual, and have been prevented from wearing PPE (personal protective equipment), such as masks and gloves, since these are deemed not to be ‘uniform’.
In addition, the great majority of the thousands of staff at the warehouse travel to work by bus. These are so full that there aren’t enough seats for everyone, never mind providing enough space to distance from other passengers. This has made working at the warehouse a breeding ground for infection.
In a further attempt to exploit the opportunity, management decided to go ahead with a pre-planned sale. When this was pointed out by representatives from the GMB trade union, ASOS chief executive Nick Beighton responded by tweeting that the sale was a pre-planned one and not a flash sale - so he couldn’t see a problem!
As an aside, it should be noted that Beighton - who ‘earns’ more in a few days than staff at the warehouse earn in one year - is currently working from home! As ever, it is one rule for the rich, and another for the rest of us.
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, some staff were forced to stay at home, since they live with very vulnerable people, or are particularly vulnerable to the virus themselves. Such workers were told that they would not be paid if they did not attend.
This forced them to make a literal choice: risk killing a vulnerable relative or themselves; or face destitution and struggle to pay rent or buy food.
As the outbreak has developed, more staff are refusing to attend. Reportedly, up to 500 are not attending shifts. That so many workers are taking such a stance is quite remarkable. The walkout is not officially organised by any trade union, despite some support being offered from the outside by the GMB.
In response to the staff shortage, the warehouse’s management have cynically exploited the desperation of those who have recently lost their jobs at other companies, and are recruiting large numbers of short-term agency workers to fill the gaps.
Whether this will work remains to be seen. But it does demonstrate just how little regard the bosses have to health and safety.
Expropriate the bosses!
There have been calls by GMB and the local Labour MP, Stephanie Peacock, to ensure that distancing within the warehouse is enforced. This, however, goes nowhere near far enough.
At a time of international health emergency, clothes shopping is an extremely low priority. The warehouse must be closed immediately, with all workers sent home on full pay.
This must be the beginning of a fightback against all the injustices endured by the workforce. For years, ASOS bosses and shareholders have made a killing at the expense of their workers.
The only way to prevent the bosses putting their wealth above workers’ health is to expropriate these big businesses - putting them under the democratic control of the workers, so that they can be run for the benefit of society, not the profits of the fat cats.