Resolution Statement – 19459-23 Boohoo Group PLC v

    • Date complaint received

      7th September 2023

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Resolution Statement – 19459-23 Boohoo Group PLC v

Summary of Complaint

1. Boohoo Group PLC complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a podcast titled “Undercover at Boohoo: The human cost of fast fashion” and articles headlined:

  • “Inside the Boohoo warehouse where workers call themselves slaves”, published on 22 November 2022.
  • My month undercover at Boohoo: ‘A wrist strap tracks our every move’”, published on 22 November 2022.
  • “The Times view on Boohoo warehouse working conditions in Britain: Dirty Laundry”, published on 22 November 2022.
  • “Minister ‘deeply disturbed’ by Boohoo revelations as share price falls”, published on 23 November 2022.

2. The podcast and articles under complaint concerned an undercover investigation the publication had carried out into the working conditions at one of the complainant’s warehouses in the UK.

3. The first article reported that an undercover reporter had “spent a month as a picker” at the complainant’s “distribution warehouse in Burnley in August and September”, recording temperatures of “up to 32” degrees during a night shift when the outside temperature was “just 19” degrees. It reported employees at the warehouse “are paid £11 an hour for shifts of up to 12 hours during which they pick items ordered by customers from miles and miles of shelving across several floors”. It said that the reporter had “walked up to 13 miles a shift, more than three times the average amount the company has previously claimed staff cover” and “in spite of having a target of only 70 per cent of the number of items fully trained workers are expected to hit”. It reported workers are “constantly monitored via scanning devices” and “expected to meet a target of 130 items an hour — more than two a minute — even though this can include items several aisles away”, after an initial training period. It reported that “failure to hit targets” resulted in receiving “”feedback” – being disciplined by a manager – and can ultimately result in dismissal”.

4. The first article also reported that staff at the warehouse had complained they are treated as “fodder”, with “managers timing their lavatory breaks and no allowances made for injuries they said they had suffered as a result of the manual work”. It went on to report that the “physical nature of the work had led to ambulances being called out to the warehouse once a month on average over the past five years”, adding that “[t]hree quarters of the 59 ambulance callouts over the period resulted in the patient being taken to hospital. Further, it said that workers in the factory’s stock control section were required to “wear company-issued safety boots”, but complaints had been raised that “they were poor quality” and “ill-fitting”, with “only two sizes […] offered” at times. The article also stated that “concerns were also raised about the quality of training” provided for those working in “stock control”, which involves unloading newly manufactured clothing.

5. The first article included comments from the complainant. It said that “the distances covered by the undercover reporter were not representative and its data showed pickers averaged seven miles on night shifts”. It also said that it “stocked safety shoes from size 4 to 13” but these were no longer required across the entire site. The article concluded with the following statement from the complainant: “Whilst we take these claims very seriously, they are not reflective of the environment at our Burnley warehouse or our colleagues’ experiences working for Boohoo.” It also reported that the complainant also said “making sure our people are safe and comfortable in their workplace is our highest priority” and claimed staff turnover was “falling year-on year”, adding that “it had had taken steps to prepare for the heat during summer months, and had put fans on every floor, provided water fountains and bottles and monitored pregnant women”. Further, it reported that the complainant said it “offered generous rates of pay which were above the national living wage and other benefits including subsidised private healthcare”; a “free on-site gym”; a “subsided canteen” and “multiple break out areas to help colleagues relax”.

6. The second article was a first-person, personal account by the undercover reporter of their experience working for the complainant. It reported that the target, for those who complete their training period was “130 [an hour], just over two a minute” and shifts would “involve walking up to 13 miles”.

7. The third article – a leader column – was critical of the complainant and the wider textile industry for the working conditions of its workers. It said that while it “may be that no specific labour law has been broken by Boohoo” – workers “are paid above the minimum wage, breaks are provided, and there is no legalisation for a maximum safe working temperature” – conditions at its warehouse were “disturbing”. It said that “asking staff to walk up to 13 miles a day while picking out a target of 130 items an hour is not a reasonable request, particularly during times of excessively high temperatures”, adding that “[o]ver the past five years ambulances were called at the rate of one a month”. It concluded: “Boohoo said that while it took the complaints seriously they were not reflective of the environment at Burnley or workers’ experiences working for Boohoo”.

8. The fourth article reported on the political and financial reaction to the publication’s investigation and included comments from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Chair of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, and the National Secretary of the GMB trade union. It stated that “staff at Boohoo’s Burnley distribution facility are forced to walk up to the equivalent of a half-marathon in sweltering temperatures” and reported that “[f]igures from the NHS show that an ambulance was called to the warehouse once a month, on average, with 11 casualties recorded as unconscious or having nearly fainted and eight callouts listed as “convulsions/fitting””.

9. The complainant said the articles and podcast included numerous inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1. It disputed that the undercover reporter had worked a “month” at its Burnley warehouse; the reporter had worked for a total of 12 shifts from 9 August 2022 to 4 September 2022. It also expressed concerns that the articles omitted that the reporter worked in a night shift pattern: three nights on, three nights off. It also disputed the accuracy and credibility of the method used by the reporter to measure the distance they had covered in a single shift. It denied that the reporter – or any picker – walked “13 miles” or “half [a] marathon” or, even, close to such a distance during a shift or were “forced” to do so. It said that the company-issued trackers worn by its workers support its position: the reporter averaged “7.6 miles” during the 12 days they worked at the warehouse. It suggested that the distances quoted in the articles would be “approximately correct”, and consistent with its own records, “if expressed in kilometres”. It also denied that there was a blanket target of “130 items per hour”; its measure of performance was a more scientific and calculated exercise than the crude measures claimed in the articles.

10. The complainant also said the articles falsely claimed that workers in stock control were forced to wear company issued safety boots and that they only had the choice of “two sizes”. In fact, the warehouse stocked boots of all sizes from “4 to 13”, which were only required to be worn where Health and Safety requirements imposed such an obligation. Further, the complainant expressed concern that the articles wrongfully suggested that its employees were paid less than the Minimum Wage. In fact, its pickers were paid “£11 per hour” which, it said, was substantially above the National Living Wage of £9.50. The complainant also said the articles misreported the amount of training employees received, and misrepresented “feedback” as being “disciplined”; its disciplinary process was for matters of misconduct, not performance improvement. In addition, the complainant said that the number of ambulance callouts to the warehouse were overstated. It suggested that the data used related to the callouts in the local postcode and a number of premises, rather than to the warehouse specifically – a point which the publication disputed.

11. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It maintained that its coverage was accurate and said that the issue of working conditions in post-Brexit Britain was in the public interest, particularly the conditions experienced by workers in a growing online shopping industry, adding that the articles made clear that these conditions were not in breach of the applicable health and safety rules or employment legislation.

12. The publication said it was not inaccurate to report that the reporter had worked “a month” at the warehouse: they were employed by the organisation from 30 July 2022 until they resigned on 8 September 2022, with their first and final shift on 9 August 2022 and 5 September 2022, respectively, after working a total of 144 hours (excluding breaks). In addition, the publication did not consider that the omission of the reporter’s shift pattern rendered the article inaccurate or misleading: the reporter had worked a shift pattern of 3 nights on followed by 3 rest days, which is the standard night shift pattern, at the warehouse.

13. Further, the publication did not accept that the distances reported were inaccurate or misleading. It said that its reporter had tracked how far they walked during each shift via the Apple Health app. It said the iPhone pedometer was accurate when recording steps and it had used three different converters to calculate the distances covered: the average distance recorded per shift across all three converters was 11.74 miles; and when the reporter worked as a picker they walked an average of 12.76 miles, the equivalent or "roughly" a half-marathon each shift. It noted that the articles reported that the reporter “walked up to 13 miles a shift”, and any reasonable reader would understand that the reporter did not cover that distance in every single shift. Though the publication accepted that these distances included trips by the reporter to the toilet and to the company’s break room, it said these were distances the reporter was required to walk in the course of their shift.

14. The publication also did not consider that the term “forced’ was inaccurate or misleading where pickers were required to walk long distances over the duration of their shifts in order to meet their targets. It also denied that its reporting of “targets” was inaccurate. While it accepted that the “target” for the number of items was variable, it said that the figure had always been around “130” during the reporter’s shifts - adding that “130” had been used as a “shorthand” by other employees to describe the target during reporter’s working hours.

15. In addition, the publication said it accurately reported the concerns of some employees that the training provided to them was inadequate – a point, it said, the text of the first article made clear. It also noted that the complainant’s position on pay and benefits – as well as availability of safety shoes from “size 4 to 13” – was included in the first article.

16. On 2 February 2023, in direct correspondence between the two parties, the complainant said that either the amendment of the articles under complaint, as it suggested with the publication of appropriate corrections, or the publication of a position statement from the complainant to append each article would resolve the complaint.

17. The publication proposed alternative wording for the complainant’s statement for the complainant to consider on 4 May 2023. It said that this wording – which it claimed was substantively similar to that proposed by the complainant but in keeping with its in-house style – would appear at the end of each of the articles under complaint, with an updated notice at the top of each directing readers to the statement. It also said the podcast would be updated to include the statement, and the episode notes that accompany the podcast on all platforms will be updated to note the amendment. It also offered to amend the first line of the first article inserting “up to” – making clear that workers were forced to walk “up to” the equivalent of a half-marathon per shift.

18. The amended statement proposed by the publication read

“Following publication, Boohoo provided the following statement: We dispute the picture painted of the conditions in our Burnley warehouse by the paper’s coverage. While recognising that warehouse work is hard physical labour, we go to considerable lengths to look after our staff, including by providing a free on-site gym, a subsidised canteen and access to health care benefits. We strongly dispute the accuracy of the distances cited in the article. According to the company-issued tracker worn by the reporter, he did not walk 13 miles on any shift. The maximum distance he walked was 9.6 miles and his average per shift was 7.6 miles, i.e. an average of 0.63 miles per hour. Between May 2021 and October 2022 the average distance walked by our pickers per shift was 8.05 miles, i.e. an average of 0.67 miles per hour. The Times’ reporter worked a total of 12 days in the month he worked at the warehouse. He was working a night shift pattern of three nights on, three nights off. Pickers in 2022 were paid £11 per hour which was comfortably above the National Living Wage of £9.50 per hour and exceeds the £10.50 paid by other large retailers. We have all boot sizes available for employees who need to wear them. We dispute the claims in relation to ambulance data and deny the suggestion that the ‘physical nature of the work’ and/or poor working conditions resulted in injury.”

19. The complainant did not consider this offer of resolution to be sufficient given the nature and extent of the alleged inaccuracies, the time taken by the publication to respond to its proposal and the length of time the articles under complaint remained unamended.

Relevant Clause Provision

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Mediated Outcome

20. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

21. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish the complainant’s statement, in the terms originally proposed on 4 May 2023, and to amend the online articles to resolve the complaint in full. It offered to amend the first line of the first article to add the words “up to” making clear that workers were forced to walk “up to” the equivalent of a half-marathon per shift. It also offered to amend the first and second article to make clear that over the course of the month the reporter worked at the warehouse, he worked 12 days on the night first, working 3 nights on followed by 3 rest days.  

22. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to its satisfaction.

23. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

Date complaint received:  11/06/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  21/08/2023