Unions and retailers at odds over warehouse social distancing

ASOS's Barnsley warehouse
Image: Rui Vieira/PA Archive/PA Images

Online retailers are facing mounting pressure to halt the sale of non-essential items or improve the protections they provide warehouse employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fashion retailers in particular have come under fire for their alleged complacency over social distancing measures in their warehouses. According to unions, employees in many warehouses are unable to keep their distance from other employees while working or taking rest breaks in designated areas, which is potentially putting their health at risk.

While some companies including luxury goods retailer Net-a-Porter, menswear retailer Paul Smith and high street chain Next have suspended online orders in order to protect warehouse staff during the outbreak, others including ASOS and Matalan, are continuing to operate.

According to the GMB Union, no social distancing measures are being enforced at the ASOS warehouse in Barnsley, while a “complicated” clocking-in system means that large numbers of people are gathering in a small area. It said “hundreds” of workers are also taking breaks at the same time.

A survey of 500 ASOS warehouse staff conducted by the GMB over the weekend found 98% felt unsafe at work because of the coronavirus.

An ASOS spokesperson told Personnel Today: “We totally refute these allegations. They are false and do nothing more than serve to create panic and hysteria in an already uncertain time.

“In line with government guidance, and with support from the Community Union and Barnsley Borough Council, we are striking the right balance between keeping our warehouse operational, for the good of our employees and the wider economy, and maintaining the health and safety of staff, which is always our number one priority.

“Since the lockdown, we have introduced a range of additional health and safety measures and the Environmental Health Officer, who visited the site on Friday, confirmed he was happy with the protocols we have in place.”

The GMB said XPO Logistics’ warehouses, which included sites for cosmetics firm LVMH and Adidas, had had to be “radically revised” in order to comply with the government’s social distancing guidance, in the same way that supermarkets have changed their operations to keep employees and customers at a distance.

Richard Owens, GMB regional officer, said: “We rightly frown at people congregating in parks and indeed, up mountains, and some are willing to countenance companies risking lives, potentially many lives, by insisting that workers continue to move themselves, and the virus, around so that we can continue to distribute cosmetics and training shoes.”

A spokesperson for XPO Logistics said: “We’re supporting our colleagues by adhering to UK government and Public Health England guidance. As the situation evolves, all appropriate health and safety measures are being put in place, alongside regular two-way communication, which ensures staff are kept informed and we’re listening to any concerns they may have.”

Matalan has offered workers at its distribution centre in Knowsley, Merseyside, the opportunity to take “furlough leave” and receive 80% of their wages under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. However, the warehouse will continue to operate for those who still wish to work.

A Matalan spokesperson said: “Along with the rest of the retail industry, we continue to operate our online business closely following the government guidance, going above and beyond to ensure the safety of both our employees and our customers.

“Over the past few days, we are pleased to have received approval from both the environmental health officer and a representative of the GMB, who have both visited our Knowsley DC and have both deemed the site safe to work. Furthermore, since these visits we shut down our warehouse for three days to undertake a deeper clean of the site.

“We will continue to operate online with continued strict health and safety regimes in place. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 we have closely followed the government and World Health Organization guidance and have operated our warehouses with a number of precautions in place to enhance everyone’s ability to operate safely. We have continuously increased these measures further as official advice has developed and will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, the Unite union has said measures need to be ramped up to protect the health of delivery drivers and those they are delivering to.

It claimed it had been contacted by lorry drivers who had been asked to deliver non-essential items such as trampolines, table tennis tables and barbecues to domestic premises. Due to the size of the items, deliveries need to be double-crewed, meaning that social distancing becomes difficult.

Unite national officer for road transport Adrian Jones said: “Drivers are rightly worried that the health of their customers, their family and themselves is being put at risk if social distancing policies are not adhered to.

“Clear social distancing policies need to be immediately established and adopted for domestic deliveries. Companies then must implement them or consider halting deliveries, until they are able to ensure safety. They must think about the increased risk of delivering items like trampolines where social distancing becomes an impossibility, meaning both the company and the public must consider the impact of delivering these and similar non-essential goods.”

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