High street fashion chain Next is offering staff a 20% boost to their pay if they turn up to stores on Wednesday, despite government warnings to stay home.
The retailer is asking workers to travel to shuttered sites and pick clothes for online orders “to keep the company operating”, according to a letter seen by the PA news agency.
But worried staff have questioned whether picking clothes is an “essential” job at the same time the government has called for all non-essential workers to temporarily avoid unnecessary travel.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said on Monday night that the public “must stay at home” unless they work in a key sector or industry.
This includes some shops such as grocers, pharmacies, pet shops, bicycle shops and hardware stores, among others.
But retailers can still trade online, and the government is now under pressure to intervene to end the confusion about which businesses can continue to operate.
A letter sent to Next employees on Tuesday evening said: “We need to keep the online business functioning to be certain that Next emerges from this short term crisis.
“To help us, we are looking for a small number of staff to attend work to pick and process the stock in our stores that customers have purchased online and keep the online business going. We will only look to achieve this on a voluntary basis.”
Bosses also laid out a series of measures to ensure social distancing and a clean work space, including limits on the number of people in each store and rules that items are only touched by one person.
The letter added: “We fully understand that many of you have great concerns about attending work. Please let me reassure you that we are in no circumstances going to ask anyone who is unsure about coming to work to do so.”
Many workers in the retail and construction sectors have said they feel they have little choice but to head to work, leading to images of overcrowded trains emerging on social media.
Next said in the letter: “We desperately need your support to keep the company operating and we hugely appreciate your help in this.
“If there are any reasons why you personally feel that it is not appropriate for you to work, we will be understanding. For example if you are caring for a vulnerable person at your home, if you cannot manage your childcare, if you cannot travel safely to work, or any other reason.”
Further on, it said: “To show our appreciation, if you attend work you will be paid an additional 20% of your basic rate of pay for all hours worked until Saturday 11th April.
Up until last week, Next was telling staff on its internal systems that the retailer considered its “operations as essential”.
Next chief executive and Conservative peer Simon Wolfson said a week ago he wanted the government to step up its efforts to support workers and warned of a hit to the non-food sector not seen since the 1973 oil crisis.
A spokesperson for Next said on Wednesday: “A very small number of staff at any one time are required to help with online orders.
“This will enable social distancing whilst these tasks are performed.”
He also stressed the new arrangements are completely voluntary and no-one is under any obligation to turn up to work.
On the group’s essential status, he added: “The government has now told us otherwise and before it did, Next had already closed all its stores.”
It comes after Sports Direct faced heavy criticism over its initial attempts to claim to be “essential” in keeping the nation fit during the lockdown.
Bosses later retreated, although not before raising the prices on dozens of exercise products.
We know everyone is suffering under the Tories - but the Canary is a vital weapon in our fight back, and we need your support
The Canary Workers’ Co-op knows life is hard. The Tories are waging a class war against us we’re all having to fight. But like trade unions and community organising, truly independent working-class media is a vital weapon in our armoury.
The Canary doesn’t have the budget of the corporate media. In fact, our income is over 1,000 times less than the Guardian’s. What we do have is a radical agenda that disrupts power and amplifies marginalised communities. But we can only do this with our readers’ support.
So please, help us continue to spread messages of resistance and hope. Even the smallest donation would mean the world to us.