“I’ll be fired. They're putting lives at risk”: Blind JD Sports warehouse worker speaks out over coronavirus concerns

Article and video report by Hannah Miller:

A worker at JD Sports has spoken out about his concerns that ‘lives are being put at risk’ by the company’s warehouse in Rochdale staying open.

Joe Gilchrist, from Bury, has been employed by the retailer for almost 24 years.

He is registered blind and has asthma, and wrote to his bosses requesting he be furloughed under the Government scheme that will cover 80% of wages for anyone unable to work.

JD Sports refused his request in writing, saying he should continue to come to work, take unpaid leave or use up his holiday entitlement.

Joe says the company is putting ‘profit before people’:

“We’re only selling trainers, shoes, we aren’t front line. I don’t understand why they want to put so many lives at risk, but that’s JD for you.”

Joe Gilchrist
ITV News has been sent photos from inside the JD Sports warehouse, apparently taken in the past few days Credit: ITV News

While Joe is the first to speak publicly, in recent weeks ITV News has received messages from several other anonymous JD Sports employees.

One described the warehouse as ‘a breeding ground for Coronavirus’.

A representative from the union USDAW told ITV News they’ve been ‘inundated’ with concerns from around 200 individuals working at the site. The union describes the work is ‘non-essential’ and says the warehouse should close.

“People are scared to go to work. The reason there’s so many people packed into the locker room at any one time is because they’re forced to clock in at the same time. They’ve not relaxed any security procedures, they’re just carrying on as normal.”

Tony Clare, USDAW

After several employees raised concerns, Rochdale Council carried out an inspection of the warehouse.

It found that while the company had taken steps and precautions to ensure social distancing was introduced, the company could do more.

Councillors went on to write to bosses, asking them to justify and reconsider the decision to remain operational.

JD Sports say their priority is "the health, safety and wellbeing of our colleagues and customers during this difficult time."

"We have taken the necessary steps* to ensure that the correct safeguards are in place, including furloughing any vulnerable colleagues who qualify for ‘shielding’ under the Government’s guidelines.

JD Sports

They go on to say "JD Sports continues to observe the latest Government guidelines for businesses, with the current advice (updated on 27 March 2020) stating that “online retail is still open and encouraged and postal and delivery service will run as normal".

But across the North West, workers in other warehouses also report being fearful for the safety of themselves and their families.

Last week a joint letter from Metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram urged the Government to remove what they describe as a ‘get-out clause’, which says companies must only enforce the 2-metre distance rule ‘where possible’.

They are yet to receive a formal reply.

Joe usually works from memory, in a section of the warehouse that dispatches orders to shops. But since they have closed down, he says friends have told him he will have to work in an unfamiliar section of the site.

“It could be dangerous for my colleagues, it could be dangerous for myself.”

Joe Gilchrist

JD Sports says "We are not aware that this colleague qualifies for shielding or furloughing under current Government guidelines.

"Should this colleague’s personal circumstances or the Government’s guidelines change, we will be happy to reconsider his request.

"We have previously offered this colleague a leave of absence should they feel uncomfortable working at the present time and that offer remains open and is totally at his discretion."

oe is nicknamed ’Tango’ in the warehouse because of his bright orange uniform that increases his visibility to others Credit: ITV News

But Joe also blames the Government for failing to classify those who are registered blind as vulnerable.

He is backing a campaign by the RNIB to give priority for food deliveries and support to those like him.

Responding to Joe's situation, a Government spokesperson said:

“This is an unprecedented time and we urge employers to listen to the concerns of their workforce and take socially responsible decisions. Individual employees can contact ACAS for impartial advice.

Government spokesperson
Joe and his wife Donna with his guide dogs, Bilbo and Solo Credit: ITV News

Joe’s wife, Donna, says her husband has done the “right thing” by speaking out. She has an autoimmune disease and is working from home as the Government guidance suggests.

Donna believes the turmoil is already having an impact on her husband’s mental health and urges JD Sports to “get their sense of morality back”.

Meanwhile Joe knows that his decision to speak out my have repercussions, but feels he needs to put his own, and his colleagues, safety first.

“I know I’ll lose my job, but my mates mean more to me. People’s lives mean more than me than a job. I get fired I get fired. I’m gutted but I can’t do anything about that.”

Joe Gilchrist