Fast fashion workers fearful to work in ‘unsafe’ COVID-19 conditions

‘No social distance, not enough sanitiser, not safe at all’

Head to the websites of some of the biggest fast fashion retailers around right now and it's likely you will be greeted by banners announcing sales with up to 70 per cent off. 

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the fashion industry. With people (understandably) not in the shopping mood right now, certain outlets, including BoohooFashion Nova, and Pretty Little Thing, are using sales as a tactic to draw in customers. Now, though, many have come under fire for the immense pressure they have put their warehouse workers under, with many employees claiming they feel unsafe.

“It is an infectious centre, you can get COVID at any given time. Why am I still there?” an employer at ASOS, which closed its sale last weekend, told the GMB Union. “No social distance, not enough sanitiser, not safe at all, I’m scared to go (to work) as I have a three-year-old daughter,” another worker said. 

Though the government has decreed that non-essential shops should close, warehouses like ASOS’s, which is located in Barnsley, have stayed open regardless. 

With staff and wider members of the public criticising the fast fashion retailer, more than 98 per cent of 460 workers said in a survey conducted by the GMB Union they felt unsafe at work. More than 4,000 people are employed at the warehouse with an average of 500 people working each shift.

“If one single worker (contracts) coronavirus all warehouse workers will get it. We are not key workers.....we are used just for profit,” said another worker at the warehouse. 

Many employees are still coming in to work despite feeling under the weather as they cannot afford to take sick days – given statutory sick pay comes in at only £94.25 a week. “I can't live on 94 pounds per week,” an employee revealed. “I cannot help my family with that. It sounds stupid but making money to live is more important than being healthy right now.”  

ASOS has since responded to the claims, quoted in the Guardian, the company stated the correct protocols have been put in place. The company's chief executive, Nick Beighton, meanwhile, called the aforementioned allegations “false”, and that they were doing nothing more than creating “panic and hysteria”.

A number of other fashion retailers are also being scrutinised. Reported in Lans Live, a Boohoo warehouse worker said they feared the factory would not shut “until someone dies”. Boohoo has said it has taken the necessary steps to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, Amazon workers in New York walked out of their Staten Island facility on Monday (March 30), demanding an increase in protective gear after some workers tested postive for coronavirus. Going on strike, they claimed their management had failed to protect its employees against COVID-19 and would not be returning “until the building gets sanitised”.

Elsewhere garments workers in Bangladesh, where the textile business accounts for 80 per cent of the country's exports, have been released from work, leaving them without income. Quoted in the New York Times, a factory manager in the region said: “The situation is very bad. The Bangladeshi supply chain is in complete disarray with many foreign brands acting irresponsibly”. His factories supply brands that include the likes of Zara, Gap, and Levi's.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout has ignited a sense of community in many, it has also served as a light, revealing the corrupt and crumbling state of a number of our institutions. With fast fashion coming under frequent scrutiny in regards to its treatment of workers, the coronavirus has served as yet another reminder that, for many, profit is put over the safety of people.