Video report by ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills
Words by ITV News Producers Laura Miller and Jess Omari
Thousands of workers in some of the poorest parts of Britain are being forced into a heartbreaking decision – go to work in conditions where they risk catching the deadly coronavirus, or stay home unable to put meals on the family table.
Not to save lives in the NHS, or for essential food deliveries, but to keep online shoppers buying trainers and tracksuits, and the money rolling in to clothing giants JD Sports and Sports Direct.
One employee at the JD Sports warehouse in Rochdale, near Manchester – where staff work in close proximity under pressure to pack and pick 96,000 items a day – told me: “I don’t feel safe, but I’m not worried for myself I’m worried for my family.
"My wife and son both have asthma, if I catch anything they’ll get it from me. But if I don’t work we can’t survive just on sick pay.”
Warehouse workers across the North and Midlands told ITV News they feel abandoned by the government, let down by employers, and forced to gamble with their lives for items as non-essential as Christmas decorations.
Shopworkers’ union Usdaw has received 200 complaints about the JD Sports warehouse alone.
Many non-essential businesses have closed (by choice or force) to protect staff and help stop the spread of coronavirus. But the government has repeatedly told online retailers they can continue to trade.
Next and Matalan bowed to pressure to close after photos revealed staff crammed together in warehouses. But JD Sports and Sports Direct have refused despite pleas from some staff.
JD Sports said it is sticking rigidly to government guidelines on social distancing and cleanliness, and argued Rochdale council has given its warehouse a clean bill of health. Ten workers told ITV News that they still don’t feel safe.
They said it is “impossible” to fulfill the thousands of orders coming in and stay two metres apart from the around 300 other people working on a 12 hour shift.
Several claimed when the council visits, workers are asked to move around the building so it looks like fewer people are working and the company is sticking to social distancing rules, and extra gloves were handed out.
JD Sports denied the claims. But Labour councillor John Blundell, whose party is in charge of Rochdale council, admitted he is worried about workers at the warehouse despite positive reports from visits.
“We have concerns about safe working practices at the warehouse. I fail to see how they are keeping two metre distance with that many people and that volume of goods,” he said.
“We can’t be there 24/7, but from the reports I’ve had from workers I don’t think the visits are a fair reflection of what’s going on at the site.”
Staff have to constantly touch and pass clothes, trainers and other items between them before they go out for delivery. They said hand sanitiser often runs out.
If you’re lucky, you may get a pair of flimsy disposable gloves. But the nature of the work means they are quickly in shreds, or have to be removed to touch screens staff said aren't cleaned often enough and are used by hundreds of others.
Most British people are on lockdown for their own safety, only allowed out for essentials like food and medicine and one period of exercise a day. Some workers at the JD Sports warehouse want to know why their lives are less worth protecting.
“I’m living on my nerves going in there,” one worker told me. “And for what? Packing trainers isn’t essential work.”
Companies can choose to close their doors and furlough staff, sending them home to stay safe on 80 per cent of their wages, paid for under a government scheme.
But JD Sports is refusing, and unless they are in the government's “severely vulnerable” category it will only pay warehouse staff who self-isolate to protect themselves and their families statutory sick pay of £95.85 a week.
“My rent is £105 a week so sick pay wouldn’t even cover that,” one worker at the Rochdale site said.
She has asthma and fears for her health but needs her £9 an hour pay, barely above the Living Wage, so she has no choice but to stick it out and gamble with her life.
Many workers at the JD Sports warehouse, or their families, have underlying health conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that can make coronavirus particularly deadly.
Poorer people will be 'hit hardest' by the virus
Poor health is compounded by poverty. Rochdale has some of the UK’s most impoverished children, according to the End Child Poverty coalition. Four in 10 kids in the borough live in households with an income under 60 per cent of the national average.
A report by think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned poorer people will be hit hardest by both the economic and health impacts of coronavirus.
Workers unions are calling on JD Sports and other online retailers to close their doors and furlough staff, to put “health over wealth”.
If they don’t, and workers get sick, shopworkers union Usdaw has threatened JD Sports with legal action under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act which says employers have a duty of care to staff and must not put them at undue risk.
In a statement, JD Sports said: “The issues raised about the operation of our warehouse in Rochdale are without foundation; they are neither accurate, nor a fair reflection of the way in which we are doing business.
“The Government’s policy is to encourage online retail businesses of all types to remain open and functional. We are doing that in compliance with relevant guidance. We take the health and wellbeing of our employees very seriously.”
'The question is, when will we start dying?'
It is the same story over at Sports Direct warehouse at Shirebrook, near Mansfield in the Midlands.
Social distancing is “physically impossible” to observe at key pinch points like the entrance, exit, stairs and picking alleyways, staff said.
Photos seen by ITV News show busy picking alleyways where there is not two metres between workers. But Sports Direct is refusing to close and furlough staff.
One employee at the Shirebrook warehouse branded Sports Direct’s refusal to close during the coronavirus pandemic “modern slavery”.
“They’re holding us against our will, putting our lives at risk, our families lives, our neighbours lives, for profit.”
They pointed to the fact even prisoners are being released early to protect them from catching the virus, “but non-essential workers are still being kept against their will at Sports Direct”.
Sports Direct initially failed to respond to our request for a statement but has since provided one. It says: “We are confident that we have the correct procedures in place in our warehouse to ensure the safety of our workers.”
The company says the allegations put to it by ITV News “are untrue” and that a recent visit by North East Derbyshire and Bolsover District Council found social distancing and regular cleaning were in place.
It added the number of employees on site has been reduced from 4,500 prior to the coronavirus outbreak to less than 900 spread over three shift patterns.
While white collar city staff can work protected from home, warehouse workers far from the capital are paying a heavy price for the government's ongoing green-light to fast fashion online retailers.
“I had a breakdown the other day at work,” one told ITV News. “All the office staff and HR are working from home. What about us?”
Coronavirus: Everything you need to know