'Scared' staff told Next warehouse in South Elmsall has to carry on as 'essential' service despite coronavirus
Retailer Next is facing a huge backlash after telling "scared" staff at a distribution centre to continue working, or else take holidays or unpaid time off.
In messages to staff on Tuesday, including those at its base in South Elmsall, the clothes firm said it was classing its warehouse operations as "essential" to keep its online business running through the coronavirus pandemic.
But the move has sparked outrage, with pictures circulating on social media of workers having to eat lunch on the public footpath outside the Field Lane warehouse, because canteen furniture and picnic tables had been removed for social distancing purposes.
Employees were also told to keep safely apart while inside the warehouse, but sources have said this is impossible given the nature of the work and the fact hundreds of people employed there.
Speaking anonymously, some staff at the centre said they felt at risk of falling ill, but feared disciplinary action or even dismissal if they did not turn up.
Those uncomfortable with the arrangements were told they would have to take unpaid leave, or use their holiday allowance, despite there being no timescale on when the pandemic might end.
Next is yet to respond to a request for comment. Usdaw, the union representing the workers, has also been contacted.
Speaking anonymously, one employee said: "I was in tears on my way into work this morning. I've got family and I've got children. I can't afford not to get paid.
"It's extremely stressful. People are angry that the warehouse is still open.
"They're upset and it's not a nice environment.
"Staff are still having to work as normal and pass boxes between each other. Delivery drivers are finishing shifts and then the new drivers are getting into the same vehicles. It doesn't feel safe."
It's also been claimed that some employees are having to stand up for the majority of their lengthy shifts because chairs have been removed as a safety measure.
Another worker said: "I'm scared because I don't know what we can do and I'm scared of getting ill.
"We feel under pressure. I have to go to work because we need money to live like everybody else.
"It's impossible not to have contact with other people while you're working in there.
"We don't have a place we can rest. All we can do is sit on the floor outside."
There are also fears that workers are having to put themselves at risk just by travelling to work, with many reliant on public transport to get there.
Local councillor Michelle Collins said she had been "inundated" with calls about the issue, and said she and the town's MP John Trickett would write to the government about it today.
She said: "This is a case of putting profit before people.
"I’ve spoken to some people who are genuinely scared. Some of them are in at risk groups and feeling under pressure to go in.
"Next shouldn’t be putting anyone in that position.
"I'm sure there are many small independent clothes businesses in South Elmsall who'd love to class themselves as essential services, but they can't and they've had to close like everyone else.
"Why does a multi-million pound corporation think it's OK to open?
"The Prime Minister has been very clear about that only services that are absolutely essential should be staying open."
Fellow Labour councillor Steve Tulley said the issue was "worrying".
"When the rest of us are making sacrifices, the last thing we need is people like Next and (chief executive) Simon Wolfson thinking they can just carry on as they please," Coun Tulley said.
“It’s completely out of order.
“Being a warehouse I can't see how anyone can keep a safe distance apart whilst doing your job. As far as I’m aware they’ve not even introduced face masks or protective gear or anything like that."
Local Democracy Reporting Service