Emergency signals from Asos and warehouses in Yorkshire’s ex-pit villages – David Behrens

The ASOS distribution centre at Grimethorpe, near Barnsley
The ASOS distribution centre at Grimethorpe, near Barnsley
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IN all the 45 years I’ve been in full-time employment, I can recall an ambulance having been called to the office only once. The incident was not even on the premises but just outside: a poor chap had suffered a heart attack as he arrived back from lunch.

So what on earth is going on in Grimethorpe, in the heartland of Yorkshire’s former coal community, where emergency medical crews have been dispatched to a single workplace 148 times in the last three years? That’s nearly every week.

Library picture

Library picture

Mining was the most dangerous occupation of all, and tragedies in South Yorkshire were depressingly common. But incidents were nothing like as frequent as in the warehouses that were put up in the 1990s on the land where the pits had stood.

Asos, the online fashion retailer whose customers use their mobile phones to order clothes they have seen someone wearing on Britain’s Got Talent, was singled out in this week’s statistics. Two years ago, six local MPs had paid it a visit after reports that its workers sometimes went without regular toilet or water breaks – which the firm denied.

This time, the allegations were even more serious. The company stood accused by a union of running what amounted to a sweatshop and of being in denial about the “inhuman conditions” imposed on its staff.

Asos operates a large “logistics plant” on the outskirts of Grimethorpe. A feeder road was built to service it, but the highways department could not have imagined that its passing trade would be mostly 999 crews. A sign as you approach warns that “all accidents and near misses” must be reported. That appears to be almost a full-time job for someone.

Grimethorpe had always been a company town. The coal industry still employed around 6,000 people when its operations were wound down a quarter of a century ago. That nothing was done to mitigate the deprivation its demise caused to communities like this has long been a stain on our national conscience. It made hollow our claim to be running a welfare state.

So on the face of it, the arrival a generation later of huge warehouses that would bring 21st century jobs to the grassed-over coalfields seemed welcome. We now learn that in some ways, they would turn the employment clock back 100 years, not forward.

The Asos workforce could not be further removed from the unionised way of life that used to define this part of the region. Warehouse jobs, unlike those in the pits, are often unskilled and paid at the minimum rate. But with 4,500 people on the Grimethorpe site alone, the firm has replaced British Coal as the dominant employer.

It attributes its high ambulance call-out rate to its policy of sending for one “often as a precaution”, which doesn’t sound like an efficient use of a precious community resource. I hope the ambulance service charges them for being summoned as casually as if it were running a fleet of minicabs.

Asos also trotted out the standard public relations guff that it “values the safety and welfare” of its workers above all else, which is easy to say but harder to demonstrate.

Part of the issue is the isolation in which communities like Grimethorpe exist. The banks and supermarkets are eight miles away in Barnsley, and better jobs usually a lot further still.

It was a point not lost on the authors of a House of Lords report on the rural economy last month. They visited Goldthorpe, four miles across the Dearne Valley, and concluded that areas such as this were just as much victims of Britain’s urban and suburban-skewed policymaking as the more traditionally rural areas of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.

In a sense, they are worse-off. They have neither the cachet of those areas nor access to such rural funding as is available. Those in the villages left to their fate when the pits were abandoned will tell you that there has been an almost complete lack of investment in the years since.

It was about time someone in government acknowledged this, and this week’s allegations about working conditions there have brought their parlous state into even sharper focus.

Years of neglect have created an ambulance culture in communities that were once northern industrial powerhouses. Will it be another generation before we realise the true nature of the emergency?