LONDON — Two of Britain’s biggest unions reprimanded online retail giants Asos.com and Sports Direct on Tuesday during a British parliamentary hearing into work practices at e-tailers.
The hearing was part of parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s inquiry into the under-regulated area of e-commerce fulfillment centers and related operations.
The inquiry came after numerous media reports and investigations that revealed abusive work practices at distribution centers and apparel factories in the U.K.
Tim Roache, general secretary at the GMB union, called Asos “one of the worst examples of a warehouse.” He said that given Asos profits, it should be employing more permanent workers, and not temporary employees from agencies.
“Employers don’t want to invest in their workers because they like this revolving door, hiring and firing, bring people in and out. The employment model is forcing people to work for the agency.”
He said the relationship with the Asos warehouse was not good. “They will not let us go onsite to represent these [workers]. That’s how much Asos have kept us out.”
Tuesday’s hearing focused on Transline, an employment agency that staffs workers for Sports Direct, Asos and, formerly, Amazon.
Parliamentarians are examining whether employers are keeping up with changes in the labor market and looking at the extent to which they protect workers.
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite the Union, spoke about some of the changes at Sports Direct, whose billionaire boss Mike Ashley appeared in a separate parliamentary hearing last summer.
Last July, parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills Committee published a report following its inquiry into Sports Direct, calling Britain’s largest sporting goods retailer “a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximize its profits.”
The committee promised to hold “Mr. Ashley’s feet to the fire, so as to see what progress he has made on improving working conditions for workers at his premises.”
On Tuesday, Turner said a number of constructive changes had been made with regard to employees at Sports Direct.
“They removed zero hour contracts for employees in their retail operations and that’s about 18,000 employees, which demonstrates the ability for employers to provide guaranteed hours and not to exploit on zero hours contract.”
He added that in terms of employing workers staffed by employment agencies, “It has not changed.”
“We put forward proposals to Mike Ashley directly,” Turner said. “And that’s gone nowhere. There’s been no movement on collective bargaining arrangements. We also put forward open access to the agencies of Sports Direct and that’s gone nowhere. There is no support from Sports Direct in terms of agency workers.
“There’s a mixed message: where Sports Direct was directly responsible and it was in the public glare — they take action. When it’s not in the public glare — no action was taking place. I’m still hopeful that at some point to appear before this committee with Mike Astley, sitting alongside me,” Turner said. “That seems to be a long way off right now. But I don’t see it as being impossible.”
During the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, there was a testy moment between a parliamentary committee member and a Transline worker.
The committee member reprimanded Jennifer Hardy, finance director at Transline, for not doing her “homework beforehand.”
Although Hardy had not prepared data on warehouse and agency worker improvements at Asos, she said: “Asos is a great example of a warehouse. I believe that our team have worked hard on the ground with the logistics team and that anything that was found has been improved.”
Asos and Sports Direct didn’t return request for comments.