Darren Westwood knows how to stick up for himself.
As a kid, he was bullied in the playground and beaten up in his local town centre. Now he doesn’t take stick from anyone, no matter how big or strong they appear, even if they happen to be one of the biggest companies in the world.
Mr Westwood believes his employer, Amazon, is a bully.
Having slowly grown fed up with pay and working conditions at the company’s warehouse in Coventry – where workers are on their feet all day sorting through goods to send to other warehouses – he has been corralling colleagues to support a strike.
After some initial reluctance, he gradually won them over and almost 300 workers are poised to walk out today – marking the first formal strike on British soil for the online giant.
“I don’t get fazed by things. I spent my life growing up and I’m at that stage where I’m not intimidated or worried,” the 57-year-old said.
“During the pandemic, people were thanking us and we appreciated that but Amazon were still making money, while we feel like we’ve been left behind.”
“The money is there. I know people say that it’s the politics of envy but we’re not asking for his [Jeff Bezos’] yacht or his rocket. We just won’t be able to pay our way. And that’s all we’re asking.”
Unions have traditionally had a hard time penetrating Amazon but the mood among the company’s workforce shifted in August after it offered its workers what many considered to be a paltry pay rise. The online giant lifted the hourly wage by 50p to £10.50 an hour.
Upon hearing the news, workers staged an informal walkout. They were expecting more, especially as the company has enjoyed stellar profits in recent years and inflation is rising at its fastest pace in 40 years.
The GMB union seized the opportunity and helped arrange a strike, with workers voting in favour of formal action just before Christmas.
It’s not just about money, however. Amazon has long been criticised for employing tough productivity targets that require workers to sort through a set number of items per hour.
Failure to do so can result in an “adapt”, a type of warning. Staff are given up to 30-minute breaks a day, only one of which is paid.
“When you think you’ve got to queue up to clock out and then queue up to go through the metal detectors and security, and queue to get your food, that time does evaporate very, very quickly,” Mr Westwood said. “I’ve been one minute late back from a break before and have been given an adapt.”
The loss of up to 300 of its 1,400 workforce in Coventry is unlikely to cause Amazon any major operational problems but management will be keeping a close eye on developments. Across the globe, its workforce has started agitating. In the US, workers at a New York warehouse recently voted to start the company’s first-ever labour union.
The GMB union is calling on Amazon to pay its UK workers £15 an hour to bring their wages in line with their American counterparts, who earn $18 an hour. However, Mr Westwood accepted that it would probably take a lot less than that to settle the dispute.
‘£2 an hour extra would be acceptable’
“I’d be happy if they just increased it by £2. I think £2 an hour extra or £2.50 an hour extra would be acceptable. I think everyone would stop then and people would be happy,” he said.
The company told Sky News that it pays a competitive local wage that has risen by 29% since 2018.
A spokesperson added: “We appreciate the great work our teams do throughout the year and we’re proud to offer competitive pay which starts at a minimum of between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location.
“Employees are also offered comprehensive benefits that are worth thousands more – including private medical insurance, life assurance, subsidised meals and an employee discount, to name a few.”
However, workers accuse it of cutting other benefits in the process. Crucially, the 5% pay rise it has given its staff amounts to a real-terms pay cut because inflation, which peaked at over 11% last year, has risen at more than double the pace.
Mr Westwood pointed out that the company has put the cost of its services up to reflect higher rates of inflation, while neglecting to fairly share the spoils with its workforce.
A similar story is playing out across the economy, especially in the public sector, where industrial relations are fracturing under the strain of rampant inflation. Nurses, ambulance drivers, railway workers, teachers and postal workers have all voted to down their tools and march out.
‘Some nights I can’t sleep’
Like some of Amazon’s employees, many of them were repeatedly reminded of their value during the pandemic, when they went out to work when others stayed at home.
“These are good people,” Mr Westwood said. “I know that some people think that we’re unskilled and this is a minimum wage for a ‘minimum job’. But you need us during the pandemic. You applauded us and painted rainbows in the street. We’re the same people.”
“It’s 10 hours a day, standing on your feet. I do 18,000 steps and it takes its toll on people. I’ve got an injury to my shoulder. Some days it’s just so painful. Some nights I can’t sleep, it just keeps me awake. And that’s from the repetitive strain of doing the same job over and over and over and over.”
While Mr Westwood is hopeful that both sides can thrash out a deal, he believes that the major gain will be to increase unionisation within the Amazon workforce to ensure workers continue to stick up for themselves.
He accepts that working for Amazon comes with benefits and many people enjoy their time there but believes the company has a long way to go.
“Colleagues are struggling to pay their bills,” he said. “But we work for one of the richest men in the world, at one of the richest companies in the world, in one of the richest countries in the world… it’s not fair.”
JD Sports cyber attack may have exposed millions of names, numbers and addresses
JD Sports is contacting customers who have been affected by a cyber attack that may have exposed their personal details.
The incident impacted 10 million people who placed orders between November 2018 and October 2020.
Customer names, delivery, billing, email addresses, phone numbers, and the last four digits of bank cards were potentially exposed.
It includes people who shopped at JD as well as the group’s Size, Millets, Blacks, Scotts, and MilletSport brands.
The sportswear company does not believe account passwords were accessed, and has assured people affected that their full payment card details were not held.
However, they are being warned to watch out for scam emails, calls, and texts.
In an email to customers, JD Sports said: “We take the protection of customer data extremely seriously and we are sorry this has happened.”
JD ‘working with cyber experts’
The company has said it is engaging with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office about the attack.
“We have taken the necessary immediate steps to investigate and respond to the incident, including working with leading cyber security experts,” the firm added.
Neil Greenhalgh, chief financial officer of JD, said: “We are continuing with a full review of our cyber security in partnership with external specialists following this incident.
“Protecting the data of our customers is an absolute priority for JD.”
What should customers be aware of?
Scam emails, calls, and texts will come from fraudsters purporting to represent JD Sports or its other brands.
Matt Hull, global head of threat intelligence at cyber security company NCC Group, told Sky News such communications are “generally not well put together”.
He advised that people should watch out for “things being misspelled, poor grammar, and odd formatting” as telltale signs that emails and texts might not be genuine.
“Quite often they will try to induce the individual to follow a link, go to a website, download a document, or provide more information that they would not expect,” he added.
UK’s most popular passwords revealed
For JD, the priority will be working out how the attackers got in and ensure they are not still in its network.
Companies worried about cyber attacks must make sure they have strong password policies in place, allow their customers to use multifactor authentication, and ensure their security systems are up-to-date.
Information of this type is also liable to ending up on criminal forums and marketplaces, Mr Hull warned.
“This type of data is really valuable,” he said.
“It can be sold, it can be reused for further criminal activity.”
The attack at JD comes just a few weeks after Royal Mail was targeted by a ransomware gang linked to Russia.
It left more than half a million parcels and letters stuck in limbo.
Last year, the National Cyber Security Centre warned cyber attacks were a “major challenge to businesses and public services in the UK”.
Paperchase on brink of collapse as hopes of solvent rescue fade
Paperchase, the high street stationery retailer, is close to collapsing into administration as hopes of a solvent rescue deal fade.
Sky News understands the chain’s parent company could appoint insolvency practitioners from Begbies Traynor as soon as Tuesday.
Paperchase’s shareholders remain in discussions with more than one potential buyer, although insiders said that a sale of the business was now focused on a pre-pack deal, which involves a company’s assets being sold immediately after it has fallen into administration.
It is unclear how many jobs or stores would be put at risk by an insolvency.
The latest development follows weeks of talks with prospective buyers, after PricewaterhouseCoopers was appointed to find new backers.
Sky News recently revealed that Paperchase had been put up for sale just four months after its most recent change of ownership.
The chain was taken over in August by Steve Curtis, an experienced retail investor who has been involved with Tie Rack and Jigsaw.
Retail Realisation, an industry advisory firm with which Mr Curtis and turnaround firm Rcapital are affiliated, was also involved in last summer’s deal.
Paperchase had previously been one of many retail casualties of COVID-19, having undergone a pre-pack administration in January 2021.
Other notable high street chains to collapse during the pandemic included Debenhams and the Dorothy Perkins-to-TopShop empire, Arcadia Group.
It trades from about 100 stores, and Mr Curtis was said at the time of the most recent takeover to be backing an existing management plan to grow that number to approximately 150 in the coming years.
Permira Credit, the previous owner, had invested in Paperchase’s digital offering as well as new shop openings and executive recruitment since its last brush with insolvency.
At that time, Paperchase employed nearly 1,300 people, and traded from more than 125 sites across the UK.
Its outlets included concessions at House of Fraser, Selfridges and a number of Next stores.
It was unclear on Monday how many stores and jobs might be put at risk by another administration process.
A Paperchase spokesman declined to comment.
Matchesfashion owner pumps in £60m to keep online retailer in shape
The private equity backer of Matchesfashion, the online upmarket fashion retailer, is pumping tens of millions of pounds of new funding into the business as it seeks a revival under its new management team.
Sky News has learnt that Apax Partners, the London-based buyout firm, has agreed to inject £60m into Matchesfashion, which sells brands including Gucci, Prada and Valentino.
The new capital will be split between £40m in equity and £20m in debt, with the latter element expected to be finalised in the short term.
In tandem with the extra funds, Matchesfashion is said to have secured covenant waivers and extensions with all of its lenders.
The additional financing underlines both the challenges that Apax has faced since acquiring Matchesfashion in 2017 and its confidence in new chief executive Nick Beighton’s turnaround plan.
Mr Beighton, the former ASOS boss, was appointed last summer, the latest in a string of CEOs to be hired by Apax during more than five years of ownership.
In a statement on Monday responding to an enquiry from Sky News, a spokeswoman for the company said: “Matchesfashion offers luxury brands an exclusive audience and our customers love the service we provide.
“Our trading performance has been very strong in recent months and we are well-positioned as a business, having significantly strengthened our top team.
“Now, with additional financial support from Apax Funds, we are well-placed to continue to drive our turnaround plan and deliver long-term commercial success.”
The business is already said to have seen positive results under Mr Beighton, with one source saying that order demand was up 15% year-on-year during the key pre-Christmas trading period.
This period also included Matchesfashion’s biggest-ever trading day, which was up 35% on the prior year, the source added.
Its performance is understood to have been especially robust in the Middle East.
Apax bought a controlling stake in Matchesfashion in a deal valued at about $1bn, but the investment has been beset by operational problems.
Mr Beighton was drafted in to replace Paolo De Cesare, who joined the company as chief executive just ten months earlier.
The former ASOS chief’s arrival made him the fourth boss of Matches in less than three years.
In November 2021, its accounts flagged “material uncertainty” over its future without an improvement in its trading performance.
Its fortunes resembled those of many online fashion retailers, which saw a COVID-inspired sales bounce evaporate.
Last week, Sky News revealed that ASOS had appointed Scott Millar, a senior financial restructuring executive, to join its finance team.
Mr Beighton spent more than a decade at ASOS, initially as chief financial officer before becoming CEO in 2015.
He helped grow the company from £178m in revenue and 150 people when he joined, to sales of £3.9bn and a workforce of 15,000, including warehouse staff, when he left.
Matches was founded at a single store in London in 1987, and now boasts 50 million visitors annually to its site.
Its closest rivals include Farfetch and Net-a-Porter.
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