Undercover: Britain's Cheap Clothes: Channel 4 Dispatches Mon 30th Jan

Category: News Release

Last week's Dispatches investigation exposed poor conditions in clothing factories in Leicester, including factories making clothes for Boohoo.com, Missguided, River Island and New Look. The factories were underpaying workers and exposing them to unsafe working environments. Boohoo responded by telling Dispatches that “they have a demanding set of… policies [for] all suppliers’ and will now do ‘regular unannounced audits’, they also commented that they wanted to assist their suppliers in raising ‘the standard of their safety procedures and ensuring that they pay at least the minimum wage.”

In this second Dispatches investigation into Britain's cheap clothing market, Morland Sanders investigates the working conditions inside some retailers warehouses. Secret filming shows the realities of operatives walking miles of floorspace a day to get orders out on time at the busiest time of the year and reveals what can happen when workers are unwell, arrive at work late or don't want to work overtime.

This second investigation has now found:

· Workers walking 20-25 miles per day, with only two 30 minute breaks – one of which is unpaid

· 15 minutes of pay docked for being 1 minute late

· Contracts terminated after three strikes – often for minor infringements

· Our undercover reporter was searched 20% of the times he went through the barriers and 40% of the times he went to the toilet

Boohoo.com – Warehouse Team Leader Whistle-blower:
Every order from the website is processed in a warehouse in Burnley, Lancashire. The company targets fashion conscious teens and 20 something’s and its most recent recorded sales increased to £114,000,000 in the run up to Christmas.

The company’s careers website says the warehouse is the “driving force” of the company and their “family sentiment” creates “an exciting, ambitious and supportive work ethic”

Keiron Hardman until very recently worked for Boohoo.com. He worked at their Burnley warehouse for almost two years, working up to become a team leader. As a team leader, Kieron has direct contact with managers and supervisors. Identified by their orange jackets, they monitor everyone and everything from a raised platform

Kieron started working at the warehouse for the agency Tailored Recruitment Services limited, TRS. Boohoo relies on TRS to provide workers when they’re busy. Agency recruits don’t have the same rights as company staff even though they can be doing the same job. At Boohoo, many of them come from abroad and can be laid off very quickly.

“We start a 6 o’clock in the morning, finish at 6 every evening, 12 hour shifts, 3 on 3 off. We have a  mixture of Boohoo staff which are on permanent contracts and agency staff… If you work for TRS, if you receive 3 strikes for anything, okay that will be the end of your employment at Boohoo.”

Workers say they have been given a strike for things like checking your mobile, showing up a few minutes late or mistakenly mixing up different trolleys.

The Boohoo Employee Handbook says that the company recognises that “from time to time, you may need to take reasonable time off work to deal with emergency situations relating to a dependent.”

But if you’re in the same warehouse working for an agency, an ill relative could cost you your job.

Kieron               Occasionally you get guys that will check the time on their mobile phones and we’ve been asked to give people strikes for that. In one particular instance I received an email to ask me if I could give somebody as strike because somebody was actually smiling.

Morland           So you could be a third of the way to losing your job because you had a bit of a smirk during the morning meeting?

Kieron   For smiling basically… 

Worker “I were pissed off so I said, can I give him a strike for that? Yeah, just get the TRS guy, bollock him. He goes, it’s up to you, because you can either bollock him or give him a strike but it annoyed me so I said, give him a strike”

A TRS worker tells Kieron why he has been given 2 strikes…
Worker              the taxi broke down
Kieron               when were that?
Worker              Couple week ago
Kieron               and they gave you a strike for that?
Worker              Yeah, for being like 5 minute late
Kieron               what else happened?
Worker              Oh I had a day off coz me dad were really sick so that’s it, I had to look after him

Boohoo told Dispatches they don’t operate a three strikes policy. They say they’re disappointed that some individuals still refer to strikes and it’s not in line with current policy.

Boohoo.com– warehouse undercover worker:
Dispatches sent a reporter in undercover as an order picker, to see what life is like working on the floor.

Hired by the agency TRS, she was given a 2 hour induction and paid nothing for her time. It’s not long before she learns about how she could lose the job she hasn’t yet started.

TRS Trainer: Things like being late, not listening to your managers, general attitude towards work. So performance, we can always help you with. Can maybe get you more training, but listening to your managers, being on time, attitude towards work, that’s up to you. We try not to issue them if possible. Usually we just get an email from a team leader, supervisor saying issue this person a strike for this and this, then we have to. And once you have three strikes that is the end of your assignment.

It’s day one and our reporter is being trained on the job. This time she’s paid for it. She’s on £7.20 an hour, the legal minimum. You cannot clock out early, but show up just one minute late and you’ll be docked 15 minutes pay.

A supervisor tells Dispatches whistle-blower Kieron that even if you’re Boohoo staff the same thing will happen. “my opinion is, if you’re one minute late you’re late and the rules are you get docked 15 minutes, as simple as that.”

Liana Wood, employment lawyer on seeing our undercover reporting,
“If that individual is 1 minute late and they have to work 14 minutes unpaid, um then that is potentially unauthorised deduction from wages and certainly if that person is on the National Minimum Wage, that would bring their hourly rate below the National Minimum Wage…and if that is the case that would be unlawful.”

Boohoo however state that all employees, including those with an agency, are paid at least the national minimum wage.

Our reporter works as a “picker” so it’s her job to collect the orders and take them to the packers to send to customers.

Dispatches learnt that pickers walk approximately 20-25 miles per day, up and down 6 flights of stairs. They can put trolleys with packages in the lift, but the pickers themselves must take the stairs. In a 12 hour shift, they get just two half hour breaks – one of which is unpaid.

Kieron   Once they start picking they're expected to carry on picking and not stop. New guys struggle to walk because they have huge blisters on their feet.

After 7 hours on the go, our reporter and a fellow trainee crouch down for a moment’s rest. But they soon discover that it’s not a good career move…

Worker              We sat down on our feet, you know like crouched down for a minute to rest
Supervisor          Don’t do that, all the bosses are around today.

Kieron               It’s relentless. If somebody stops working for 5 or 10 minutes it will come up on the system. We know everything about that person. We can track everything that person is doing. Where he is in the warehouse and whether he’s hitting target or not and his down time as well.

Kieron,              it does get to people. People are stressed. People feel under pressure to perform. It is a very simple job picking, and yet people are suffering from stress.

In a statement, Boohoo told Dispatches: “employees often get a buzz from smashing records…” and that “the average distance covered by an employee is 7 and half miles.”

TRS said that “have not been made aware of any workers colleagues suffering from stress'… and if they had 'they would’ve taken appropriate actions.”

Enforced extra shifts:
In the run up to Christmas TRS demanded that workers took on an extra shift.

Kieron               This an overtime day yeah?
Worker             Yeah, forced overtime
Kieron               Forced?
Worker              Yeah overtime gotta do it overtime, mate.
Kieron               What did they say to you?
Worker              You have to do it otherwise we’ll sack you.
Kieron               Do it or I’ll sack you?
Worker              Yeah pretty much yeah, unless you’ve got a really good excuse, which I don’t, forced overtime it is.

Liana Wood, “In my view that would be unlawful. It needs to be clear in the contract to the worker that part of the contract is that they could be made to work extra shifts. If that is not clear then that would be a breach of the contract and be unlawful.”

Dispatches has seen a TRS Job Description form which says workers may have the opportunity to voluntarily work additional shifts.

TRS responded, “It is not enforced overtime, it is allocated and agreed with the individual, if the day allocated is not suitable they can request a different day….or decline the overtime”

ASOS- warehouse searches:
In September last year, ASOS was accused of exploitative working practices in its Yorkshire warehouse. Allegations the company denied. Dispatches have sent in an undercover reporter to see if anything has changed, he gets a job as a packer through an agency. Even in his first few days, our reporter is given a target for the number of items he has to pack every hour…

On several occasions our reporter couldn’t start work immediately because there were no available packing stations. It’s not his fault but management are on his case for missing targets.

Warehouse workers have long complained about frustrating security searches. The companies say they try to minimise theft. ASOS says it only checks about 2% of all the people at the warehouse.

At the barriers on the way in or out of the building, a red light means a worker will be searched, workers can even be checked when they go to the bathroom.

On entering and leaving the building workers must queue to pass through security, some are selected to be searched. Whether they are queuing for a security search or to clock out the workers are unpaid for this time.

There are also searches at Boohoo, experienced by Kieron:

Kieron               So most time’s it’s probably after 20 past 6 by the time people are getting out
Morland             And you’ve not got paid for that 20 minutes?
Kieron               No, no

Kieron says sometimes this takes longer when everyone is searched.

Liana Wood I think certainly for individuals that are on the National Minimum Wage, I think there’s quite a clear breach of National Minimal Wage legislation there. There is also a potential claim there for unauthorised deduction from wages

ASOS says searches shouldn’t happen during break time yet on his second day, our reporter was checked at the start of his break.

In total, he was searched 20% of the times he went through the barriers and 40% of the times he went to the toilet.

In a statement, Boohoo told Dispatches:
“Boohoo currently inspects 30% of the workforce….we are constantly trying to reduce this…All full-time employees are paid at least the national living wage regardless of age.”

As far as ASOS is concerned the warehouse operator told this programme:
“Employees stop working 5 minutes before their shift ends allowing for paid time to exit. The 2% search rate is set and managed by the automated turnstiles” “someone would have to go out of their way to try to get searched as frequently as your… reporter claims”

British Trades Union Congress response:
Over the last two weeks Dispatches has exposed the truth behind the glamour of fast fashion. Low pay, poor conditions…from the sewing machine to the warehouse. But this is so much bigger than clothing; the Trades Union Congress has found that 1 in 10 UK workers are now in precarious jobs

Frances O’Grady, from the British Trades Unions Congress, “This is the kind of ‘new normal’ at work. The problems is there, perhaps it’s always been there, but I think what’s clear is that the problem is getting much bigger. The government should be piling in, it’s got inspectors who should be looking at these work places and calling those employers to account.”

Five years ago the government doubled the time you had to work somewhere before you can bring an employment tribunal. Then it introduced fees of around a thousand pounds for your case to be heard, which is hard to find when earning £7.20 an hour.

Undercover: Britain's Cheap Clothes: Channel 4 Dispatches Mon 30th Jan, Channel 4, 8pm
Reporter: Morland Sanders
Producer/Director: Alison Ramsay
Executive Producer: Adam Vandermark, Chris Shaw
Production Company: ITN PRODUCTIONS