Taking to Twitter on Saturday, Asos CEO Nick Beighton denied claims of dangerous conditions putting workers at the brand’s northern England warehouse at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Deanne Ferguson, a regional organizer from the GMB trade union, alleged via Twitter that the company is not enforcing social distancing and has hundreds of “scared” workers. Beighton wrote in response that Ferguson doesn’t “have any facts” as she has “never been in the facility.”
The exec also responded to a tweet from Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North, writing that, “we are operating under the authority and encouragement of the government .. where they have explicitly encouraged online business to continue for the good of the economy, jobs but with enhanced health and safety measures.” In a response to another tweet, Beighton assured that “we really aren’t risking lives.”
On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who has since tested positive for COVID-19, and is currently in isolation — implemented a nationwide lockdown for at least three weeks, ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses. U.K. storage and distribution facilities are considered “essential” under national guidelines. Still, workers have expressed concerns that large warehouses do not allow for social distancing and could thus lead to transmissions of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
The GMB, a trade union, on Friday published a report based on conversations with employees of Asos’ Grimethorpe, Barnsley, which it says is operating with up to 4,000 people. Workers told the GMB that social distancing guidelines are being “completely ignored,” citing hundreds of workers taking lunch break at the same hour and a clocking-in system that requires large amounts of people to gather in a small area.
“They are playing roulette with people’s lives,” one worker told the GMB, with another saying: “It’ll be like a domino effect, if one gets it, we’ll all get it and people will lose their lives.”
Stephanie Peacock, MP from Barnsley East, said that warehouse workers should not be exempt from the U.K.’s effectual lockdown. Peacock, who says she has received multiple calls from employees of Asos’ facility, argues that warehouse workers should be “given the same protections as office staff.”
“It is disgraceful that Asos has not closed its warehouse to look after the welfare of its workers,” she stated. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re a CEO or picker in a warehouse, you deserve to be protected from COVID-19.”
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has also chimed in, writing on Saturday that Asos bosses “must have their workplace safe — or shut up shop.”
Internationally, the coronavirus has infected over 685,000 people as of Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins, with more than 32,000 dead. In the U.K., over 19,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed; more than 12,000 people have died.
The British fashion industry is on pace to take a significant hit due to the coronavirus, according to a Global Data report. The marketing analytics firm predicts that apparel and footwear sales in the U.K. will drop by 11.1 billion pounds ($13.5 billion) in 2020 compared with 2019.
While some fashion firms such as Asos may be hoping that e-commerce can provide some relief amidst the crisis, several U.K. chains have temporarily shuttered their online operations due to outcry from warehouse workers, including fast-fashion brands Next and River Island as well as footwear label Schuh.
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