Etailer Asos must be desperately hoping that it will not become the ‘next Sports Direct’, as union GMB claims it might be.

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

Retailers’ working practices are increasingly being scrutinised by MPs

The fast-fashion specialist has come under the spotlight again after BuzzFeed alleged its warehouse workers are being treated like “machines”, following a three-month investigation by reporters.

Among the claims were that staff faced restrictions on when they can take toilet or water breaks.

Asos strongly denies the claims.

It is quite a leap of faith to think the company, originally known as ‘As Seen on Screen’, could end up in the same position as Sports Direct, not least because its recent trading performance has been healthier than the Mike Ashley-controlled retailer.

Judging by Asos’s response, it feels hard done by. It is also probably still feeling bruised after Labour leadership contender Owen Smith singled it out over its alleged working conditions.

Nevertheless, MPs are not ruling out a separate inquiry into Asos on the back of the claims.

Left-wing conspiracy?

Some might dismiss this latest furore around workplace practices as an example of a left-wing cabal of MPs, unions and the media hungry for blood.

But they would be wrong.

The issue of workers’ rights – particularly from the ‘gig economy’ that has sprung up through the success of businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo – is taking centre stage.

And the agenda is being driven by new Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, who is not known for her lily-livered attitude.

May has commissioned Tony Blair’s former policy boss, Matthew Taylor, to head a review of workers’ rights, examining how the new world of work is giving rise to a band of low-paid, stressed-out workers.

“It appears the initiative is part of a bid by the Prime Minister to move onto Labour’s turf, and to further restore faith in capitalism after its battering from the 2008 crash”

This comes on top of a pledge by May to look at the idea of worker representation on company boards.

“Flexibility and innovation are a vital part of what makes our economy strong, but it is essential that these virtues are combined with the right support and protections for workers,” May has said.

It appears the initiative is part of a bid by the Prime Minister to move onto Labour’s turf, and to further restore faith in capitalism after its battering from the 2008 crash.

Taylor’s review could just be seen as an attempt by May to appease critics of the type of economy that has developed under a Conservative government. Fears have also been raised about an erosion of workers’ rights once Britain disentangles itself from European law.

However, it could also be read as a serious attempt to get companies to think seriously about how their lowest-paid workers are being treated.

Retailers are among the businesses that benefit from using flexible workers, through zero-hour contracts and other methods, so the industry is sure to be part of the focus.

In addition to the Taylor review, the issues will be explored as part of new inquiry by Parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills committee on the ‘future world of work’.

All of this shows that retailers must be ready to engage on the issue of how they treat their workforce, or risk some seriously negative headlines.