Asos bets big on London despite Brexit
Online retailer joins Facebook and Google with the announcement of expansion plans. Could the ability to influence Government policy have played a role?
Another win for the Brexit brigade? The decision by online retailer Asos to hire 1,500 staff over three years, as part of plans to expand its London head office, will no doubt be portrayed that way by Theresa May’s Government.
Following similar announcements by Facebook and Google, both of which plan to increase their UK workforces despite the uncertainty created by Brexit, the announcement is an early Christmas present for ministers, especially the hardcore Brexiteers among them.
“London is pretty special,” Asos boss Nick Beighton said as he explained the decision, while they were high-fiving each other in Whitehall.
He plans some pretty special treatment for the people who are going to work for him at his art deco palace too. There’ll be a “wellness centre”, a training academy, a quiet zone library, a tech bar, even a concierge service so staff don’t have to worry about day to day annoyances such as getting the boiler fixed while they’re at work.
It looks sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? You do rather wonder what Asos workers in Barnsley will make of the reports while they’re trying to go through the day without taking too many drinks, or going to the loo. “Inaccurate” and “misleading” is how Asos described reports that staff there operated in a highly pressurised environment which limited those things. That didn't stop the GMB union from staging a demo at the pre-expansion HQ, or MPs from promising to investigate.
But I'm getting away from main the point, which is why the company has chosen London, with all the uncertainty that comes with doing anything in a Britain where you have no idea of what the trading situation is going to be in a couple of years time.
Partly it is because, as Mr Beighton pointed out, London is indeed pretty special. It’s a global city with a ready supply of young, talented, highly qualified, and ambitious workers who’ll cheerfully burn the candle at both ends (and keep that concierge service busy while they're at it).
It’s also the capital of a country that is preparing for the nearest thing in Europe to Trumponomics. Which means rock bottom corporate taxes combined with an ultra-flexible labour market that allows companies to hire, and especially to fire, as they please.
The minimum wage is a bit higher than corporate Britain would like, but the people who will inhabit Asos’s new HQ will be earning a lot more than that, as will all the new Googlers and Facebookers who join those companies in the months to come.
There might also be an equally good, but less obvious, reason why companies that have recently announced expansion plans are keen to come here. They should find it much easier to influence the UK Government than they do the European Commission, with all its concerns about workers’ rights, the environment and (at least more recently) the fair payment of tax. The latter is one of the reasons McDonald’s announced plans to flip its corporate burger from Luxembourg to London last week.
Brexit backers may cheer what they see as independence from the EU. But there is a trade off that comes with acheiving that. To make Brexit work as they have promised it will, to keep companies coming here so the economy doesn't crash, there is a price to pay. That may well end up being much greater corporate influence over Britain and its laws.
Despite what's its critics would have you believe, the EU, however flawed, at least has democratic accountability via the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. You have the power to vote out the members of both. By contrast, you have no power at all over the business lobby, which is accountable only to itself.