In 2010, when ASOS opened a new warehouse in Barnsley, south Yorkshire, locals were optimistic.
Almost 15 years earlier, the former industrial town's last coal mine had closed and unemployment was high, so the media hailed the warehouse – funded by a joint EU-UK regeneration project – as a job provider for one of the most deprived areas in the north. That 530,000 square foot distribution centre – about the size of five football pitches – promised to bring thousands of jobs packaging items sold on the fashion website.
Not long after the warehouse opened, general trade union GMB began to see its membership grow in the Barnsley area.
"We surveyed the members," says Deanne Ferguson, the GMB regional organiser responsible for the warehouse. "We found out quite quickly that the working practices were really, really poor there." For five years, from 2011 to 2016, Ferguson campaigned in the ASOS workplace. Workers who alleged bullying and racism, worsening mental health conditions, and even one who had a heart attack in the warehouse, all hoped to gain union recognition. In the end, it never happened.
Ferguson and the workers at ASOS weren't alone: this move to unionise would ripple across the fast fashion industry, through workers up and down the country. It's a story of woeful workplace practices, inter-union clashes and, in one case, a fatality. In the UK, we buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe (increasingly online) – and this boom comes with a price.
In 2016, Buzzfeed News published an investigation. It claimed that workers at ASOS' Barnsley factory had their toilet and water breaks limited, and alleged their pay was docked if they were a minute late. At the time, XPO Logistics – the company that runs the warehouse for ASOS – denied the claims. Later that year, MPs agreed to investigate the working conditions there. When a 2018 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that ambulance call-outs to the warehouse happened once a week, on average, Unite the Union described it as "dark, satanic mills of the 21st century".
"People are basically treated like robots," says Ferguson. "It's sort of an inhumane treatment of people."
Mena*, a current employee of ASOS and a GMB member, says working in the warehouse today is difficult. "If there's a peak period where they have tons of work, they actually say, 'Don't go to the toilet, stop drinking water, don't go to the toilet.' If you go, they come and ask you, 'You were offline one minute – where did you go?' They are like, 'Work, work, work, don't ever stop.' Which is really hard."
She sees "a big difference between the treatment of English people and foreigners", in terms of "how they want you to work differently – they want you to work harder than the English".
A few months ago, she alleges, hundreds of staff weren't paid correctly: "It was a huge scandal. Sometimes it was only £3 or £4, but there were some cases… one of our colleagues from our team missed like £200."
Erik*, who has worked in the warehouse for almost two years, says he has also faced pay issues. "To get the answer, or get it fixed, it takes a lot of time," he explains. "That's the main issue. It's a very big company and there are many people. So most of the time in big corporations, you are just a number." While Erik says he always receives the money in the end, he says he encounters a payment problem almost every month. "For night shifts, for example, I was not paid for three months."
In 2011, GMB began its campaign at the ASOS warehouse gates. After their shifts, workers would pass Ferguson stationed outside, handing out leaflets on everything from their rights on water breaks to suitable working temperatures. Soon, workers began telling her about their issues. "We were pulled by a team leader who had just been dismissed because he'd been told that he had to discipline somebody who had taken too long going to the toilet," she explains. "This manager had refused to do that, and he himself ended up getting dismissed."
Issues like this quickly began to pile up. Ferguson learned that staff who worked under a flexitime system struggled to take off the hundreds of hours they had accrued in exchange for working overtime. This led to ASOS responding to claims it was potentially breaching minimum wage legislation in 2016. Ferguson details other claims that staff made, such as being dismissed or penalised for toilet breaks and water breaks. Staff also spoke of bullying, especially aimed at the workers who weren't English. The car park, which saw cars come off a dual carriageway into 5MPH regulation, Ferguson says, was "a death trap".
Over the five years of organising, membership continued to grow in the warehouse – Ferguson tells me there were easily over 500 members. According to labour laws, once a union has more than 50 percent plus-one-member in a workplace, they can apply for recognition to a body called the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC). With enough members, ASOS could be forced to "recognise" GMB in the warehouse (if it didn't want to do so voluntarily). That would give workers the legal right to strike, the ability to collectively bargain and allow employees to become GMB reps. But if the union applies to the CAC for recognition and finds it doesn't have enough members, it can be legally barred from organising for three years. Without an accurate staff list provided by the company, it was hard to confirm whether GMB had the right number.
GMB say ASOS wouldn't meet with them at any point to discuss the union efforts. "We were trying to push them into a corner to say, 'Look, you need to come and deal with us,'" says Ferguson. "'Let's stop doing this and let's actually sit around the table and get things sorted out.'"
In January of 2017, Ferguson received some bad news. GMB discovered that XPO Logistics (who run ASOS' warehouse) had voluntarily agreed to sign a deal with Community Union – a smaller union that had done no organising on the site – and not GMB. GMB accused ASOS of signing a "sweetheart deal" (essentially, recognising a less effective, more sympathetic union, to block another union). GMB claims Community union had only four members in the warehouse before the recognition deal was agreed, and that its recognition agreement contains a no-strike clause.
In 2018, after an 18-month battle, GMB won £25,000 from Community Union. The Trade Union Congress Disputes Committee found that Community Union "clearly and significantly breached" the union guidelines. During this period, GMB learned that if they had petitioned to Central Arbitration Committee for recognition just before Community had been recognised, they'd have had the right percentage of membership to win.
A spokesperson at Community Union denied the claim that there is a no-strike deal. When asked to share the recognition agreement with VICE, they refused. When asked how Community Union managed to convince XPO Logistics to recognise their union with no organising and little membership, a spokesperson told me the union's first point of call is to "persuade employers". They were not able to tell me the number of members at the time of recognition.
"Community has 25 union reps, democratically elected by our members, who have worked tirelessly to make improvements for the thousands of workers that have freely joined Community over the past few years," a spokesperson for Community Union told VICE. "There is always more to do, and Community's reps will continue to strive for improvements in both pay and working practices on behalf of the thousands of workers we represent."
Once Community Union were recognised in the workplace, GMB couldn't organise there. Everything Ferguson had worked towards came to an abrupt end.
Three months after Community Union's recognition, when GMB had effectively been banned from campaigning, 20-year-old worker Nicoleta Moldoveanu was killed by a car in the warehouse's car park after a night shift. This was the same car park the GMB had been worried about years before. Nicoleta was also a GMB member. Later that year, Barnsley council unanimously accepted ASOS' planning permission to build an alternative parking lot.
A spokesperson from ASOS told VICE, "Without exception, we take concerns about employee welfare or health and wellbeing extremely seriously. We are committed to protecting freedom of association throughout our supply chain, including in our fulfilment centres, and in 2017 we voluntarily recognised the Community trade union at our Barnsley site in order to further strengthen communication with employees."
A spokesperson for XPO Logistics told VICE: "At XPO, the safety and well-being of our colleagues is our top priority. At XPO, we have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment, and all complaints are promptly investigated."
Mike Aylward, the north west divisional officer for the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), is currently rather busy. He says he's responding to calls from employees to unionise Boohoo's call centre in Burnley and its head office in Manchester (notably, this does not cover its manufacturing warehouse in Leicester, which has been at the centre of workplace exploitation claims).
Boohoo is not ignorant to unionisation pressure. In 2019, the Environmental Select Committee published its "Fixing Fashion" report, recommending that Boohoo engage with USDAW "as a priority and recognise unions for its workers". The year before, Boohoo's co-founder and joint CEO Carol Kane told the committee that it would recognise a union, "if the workers would like it". Exchanges between Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh and Boohoo were later published in an attempt to pressure the company further. There is still no union.
While USDAW does not know the full details of the working conditions at the Burnley call centre, Aylward tells me: "[Staff] are saying things like 12-hours shifts, health and safety being compromised with toilet breaks […] But for some reason, [when it comes to unionisation], the owners of the business have been absolutely clear: over my dead body."
A spokesperson for Boohoo told VICE, "Shift patterns in our Customer Services teams are either nine hours for day shift colleagues, or 11 hours for evening shift colleagues. These shifts include appropriate break times, supplemented by a 'personal break', which is taken at the discretion of our colleagues."
They continued, "As we have previously stated we have consulted our team at Burnley repeatedly to understand their wishes regarding Union representation. Their view remains that they do not need or want the representation of a Trade Union."
Across the country, trade union membership has fallen dramatically. While, last year, union membership rose slightly, workers are striking the least number of days since records began. It's clear that workers are still exploited at work, but after a gradual disempowerment of the union movement, union recognition is becoming harder to achieve.
Mena is still worried about her treatment at the ASOS warehouse. "I fought a lot with them, so I'm a bit scared," she explains. "I know it would be a really hard life if I go back there."
Before we finish talking, I ask Mena how different her life would be if she saw effective union representation in her workplace. "Speaking with the rep for the first time, it felt like my life matters here," she tells me. "I'm not a nobody, and there is somebody caring about us."