Britain's warehouse workers needed an Employment Bill. The government has failed them

11 May 2022

By Ross Mudie

5 minute read

Warehouses are in their golden age. With a recent report by the ONS highlighting the sector as the fastest growing part of our economy, more and more people around the country are finding themselves picking, packing, and parcel sorting their way to a paycheque. Yet behind their thick windowless walls lie countless tales of horrifying working conditions. Despite the recent P&O scandal stressing the urgency to tackle rogue employers, there was dismay when yesterday it was confirmed that the government has delayed employment legislation from this year’s Queens Speech. Delaying the employment bill, once again, is a betrayal of the growing workforce who supported our economy through the pandemic.

Fuelled by the rise of online shopping and exacerbated by the pandemic, today’s warehouse boom is in some ways reminiscent of the consumer-driven factory boom in post-war Britain. Yet unlike the factories of industrial Britain where workers commonly enjoyed a good wage, stable hours, and significant bargaining power over employers, many warehouse business models are overdependent on easily disposable agency workers on insecure contracts. Analysis by Centre for Progressive Policy shows the damaging impact such contracts have on productivity in places where warehouses are heavily concentrated, the very parts of the country that the government is desperate to ‘level up’ in the Midlands, North of England, and South Wales. The reliance on insecure contracts for business growth is dragging down the broader growth prospects of these regions.

Tales of criminal employment practises, bullying, and modern slavery in today’s warehouses are also commonplace. A recent survey of 500 Asos workers saw 98% claim that they felt unsafe at work, while an investigation into JD Sports saw its warehouse staff describe their working conditions as “worse than prison”. Disturbing figures that highlight the number of ambulance callouts to the warehouses of these fashion favourites led one union figure to describe them as the “dark satanic mills of the 21st century”. While the factory jobs of our past were highly desired, for many today, warehouse life is grim.

Layers of management, recruitment agencies, and subcontractors make it difficult for workers to raise concerns and hold their management to account, meaning that many simply don’t. Business growth hinges upon ruthless work targets that are enforced through constant surveillance, with their insecure contracts meaning that workers who raise concerns risk being struck from the payroll. The new BBC drama Life and Death in the Warehouse, depicting a young pregnant woman’s battle to improve her ‘pick rate’ at the detriment of her and her unborn child’s health, was inspired by real life conversations the director had with workers whilst filming another documentary.

Despite their terrible track record, warehouse employers have been celebrated as drivers of our economy. Leicestershire-based logistics firm Crouch Logistics Ltd, recently celebrated its Director, Chris Crouch, becoming a finalist at the Leicester Mercury Business Awards for overseeing yet another year of double-digit growth. Yet behind these impressive figures is a culture of fining workers at every opportunity, refusing to pay staff, threatening and forcing them through the court system to receive payments. Years after leaving, and there are workers still waiting to be paid.

The Employment Bill, which would have delivered on manifesto commitments to introduce a single agency to enforce workers’ rights, is vital for improving job security, productivity, and ensuring that rogue employers are held accountable. The choice to delay it once again leaves the government’s commitment to building a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity” economy in tatters.

Expanding the right to flexible working and access to secure contracts would support the creation of the good jobs needed to drive economic growth today – much like those enjoyed by the factory generation who fuelled the post-war boom. Centre for Progressive Policy considers good jobs to be rooted in good pay, secure contracts, training and progression opportunities, safe working conditions, a good work-life balance, fair representation, and a diverse workforce. The employment bill would have made significant progress on several of these – good jobs are vital to tackling inequality and supporting productivity growth, particularly of the places the government is so desperate to level up.

By choosing to abandon the Employment Bill once again, the government has chosen to gamble on a strategy of economic growth at any cost, allowing the dominance of rogue employers to come at the expense of the livelihoods and wellbeing of those who fuel it. Until the interests and security of our workforce is front and centre of our future growth trajectory, horrifying workplace practises will continue, and those who stand most to gain from economic growth will continue to bear the brunt of the government’s failure to deliver it effectively.