Asos Investigation Reveals The Dark Future Of Online Retail

One worker was allegedly fired after suffering panic attacks brought on by the stresses of her work

A worker scans items at an Asos distribution center — Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sep 30, 2016 at 3:17 PM ET

Sure, receiving that outfit you ordered online just 48 hours prior seems like a perfect example of why it’s a great time to be alive, but allow us to be that ethics police buzzkill and remind you that everything comes at a cost: A Buzzfeed investigation into the English online retailer Asos has highlighted the host of problems within the fast, cheap, warehouse-reliant online retail model, focusing on one young woman whose work-induced panic attacks led to her firing.

According to Buzzfeed, after Asos employee Joanne Goddard found herself unable to hit performance targets, she was moved from role to role at the warehouse, collecting and packaging items to be quickly sent out to customers following flash promotions and sales. When they were unable to find a reassignment within the company that would fit her health concerns, the report says she was terminated with very little notice.

The report also alleges that Goddard worked among scores of other laborers denied bathroom breaks, subjected to invasive monitoring and surveillance, faced with last-minute shift cancellations, and finally removed from their positions on short notice due to illness or other personal matters unrelated to job performance.

When approached by Buzzfeed reporters, representatives from XPO Logistics, the company contracted by Asos to run this particular distribution center, disputed the allegations. Inquiries sent to Asos by Vocativ as to the validity of Buzzfeed’s account went unanswered.

Brutal as it is, the Asos account seems pretty much on-par with industry standards set by Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer. Over the course of the past few years, investigations into Amazon’s practices have uncovered a vast array of poor working conditions, including overly hot or cold temperatures, a lack of job security, mandatory prison-like security checkpoints to discourage theft, and more.

It’s a longstanding problem in this evolving retail environment that seems to defy improvement as reliance on the online retail economy becomes more ubiquitous. A Mother Jones investigation into the world of being a “warehouse wage slave,” published in 2012, first detailed the harsh working conditions faced by the reporter, who was frequently mistreated and made to feel disposable by higher-ups. In 2014, two deaths occurring in Amazon-owned warehouses led to investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The online retail economy is only continuing to grow and become more competitive, meaning that these issues are unlikely to improve without. According to Bloomberg, a modern warehouse boom is on the rise, with prime warehouse rents up 9.9 percent this year, and at least three U.S. cities are set to see more than 10 million square feet worth of warehouse space constructed in the coming years.