Workers 'relieved' by Next closing South Elmsall warehouse after backlash, amid claims chief exec Simon Wolfson visited site

Staff at Next's warehouse in South Elmsall have welcomed the company's decision to belatedly close down for the coronavirus pandemic.

Friday, 27th March 2020, 11:27 am
Updated Friday, 27th March 2020, 11:28 am
There've been unconfirmed reports Next chief Simon Wolfson visited the South Elmsall warehouse last night.

The firm was heavily criticised after saying its distribution centres would carry on running as an "essential" service, the day after Boris Johnson effectively put the UK in lockdown on Monday.Pictures on social media showed staff being forced to eat their lunch on the pavement outside the Field Lane warehouse, with local councillors and MP Jon Trickett among many voicing fury at Next.

Warehouse sources also said it was impossible to maintain safe social distances and some workers said they were "scared" they were at risk of falling ill, but feared reprisals if they didn't turn up.

The company is yet to publicly comment on the fallout but it reversed its decision to stay open in messages to workers on Thursday night. All its warehouses closed down after 9.30pm.

Many people were angered by pictures of workers having to take lunch on the pavement outside the Field Lane centre.

There are unconfirmed reports, which Next has also not commented on, that chief executive and Tory peer Simon Wolfson made a rare visit to the site last night.

In its communication to staff, Next said: "We have listened carefully to the feedback voiced by many of our colleagues.

"It is clear that many of you increasingly feel that you should be at home; and are worried about coming to work in the current climate.

"As a result we have taken the decision to close our warehouse and distribution operations until further notice."

All workers will be paid in full by the company until April 11, after which the government's 80 per cent guarantee for all those unable to work is expected to kick in.

Next added: "In the meantime please take good care of yourselves and we look forward to seeing you when operations resume."

The retailer had originally said its online business needed to continue running during the pandemic, which was why it had claimed its warehouse operations were essential.

Speaking anonymously, staff said the right decision had been made in the end and they hoped working conditions at the warehouse would improve after the pandemic.

One said: "It's taken a lot of effort but I feel like they have listened to us now.

"It's a big relief for me, my family and my colleagues.

"I've never known Simon Wolfson visit in all the time I've worked here, so I hope he's seen what things are like even without the pandemic, so hopefully it's a game changer when we go back."

Another said: "I'd rather be broke than be putting other people at risk of falling seriously ill.

"Next have been putting money before its employees.

"It should be about saving lives and not about how much money you're putting away in the bank."

South Elmsall councillor Michelle Collins said she hoped ASOS, which has also been criticised for similar issues at its depot in Barnsley would follow suit.

She said: "This was a really big issue for people locally. It was about Next workers obviously but also about their families and entire communities because so many of us are connected to someone who works there.

"It shows what we can do when we pull together - hundreds of thousands of people saw our stuff on social media, we were in the news and our campaign even ended up with a question about warehousing being asked of the Prime Minister in his daily press conference.

"I have the same emails as staff, so there could be some details we aren’t aware of yet but this seems like a responsible decision from Next that’s good for workers, their families and our communities.

"I hope that Next now stand by their workforce and top up the governments pay subsidy so that no family will lose wages whilst the country deals with this pandemic. Next can't make the profits it does without the graft of local people."

Local Democracy Reporting Service