‘Toxic environment’: former staff of UK fashion retailer allege culture of bullying

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Former staff of a fast-fashion brand that boasts of empowering young women have told the Guardian they were subjected to a toxic culture of bullying, abusive and degrading comments.

The claims about Missy Empire, a Manchester-based retailer now owned by Frasers Group, were made by female employees.

The company was co-founded by the brothers Ash and Ish Siddique in 2015, and its website says it is “for the go-getters, the goal-setters, the kick-ass females who F with convention and create their own kind of pretty”.

The brand logo is XX, which stands for “the female chromosome”, which the website says is “a subliminal reminder that we are for the female and we will continue to empower you by the power of clothes”.

However, 18 former staff who spoke to the Guardian described what they claimed was a “toxic” working culture, where young women in particular were targeted for mistreatment by the managing director, Ash Siddique.

They claim:

  • Staff were bullied, shouted and sworn at.

  • He made degrading comments about models’ body shape and physical appearance.

  • Staff were asked to model clothes for the managing director.

  • Seven members of staff said they were fired without reason, and two staff claimed they were unable to keep copies of their employment contracts.

  • Formal complaints were ignored by Missy Empire’s owners.

Their claims are supported by emails, screenshots and testimonies seen by the Guardian. The Guardian put all the claims to Ash Siddique but he failed to respond.

Testimonies provided to the Guardian suggest Missy Empire’s junior ranks are staffed by predominantly young female workers, many in their first job, and that there is a very high rate of departures and dismissals.

Attracted by a career in fashion, staff reported being excited to join only to have their enthusiasm and self-confidence destroyed. None of the workers who spoke to the Guardian stayed with the company for more than a year and a half; many stayed just a few months.

“I was crying all day in the loos because I was bullied,” said one member of staff who started in late 2022 and left for a new job a year later.

“During my first week there I was called into the office so many times and shouted at about mistakes and the business failing. He [Ash Siddique] made out like it was my fault.”

She added that her experience there left her with “anxiety and feeling depressed”.

Missy Empire’s co-founders, Ash Siddique and Ish Siddique. Photograph: Paul Cooper/Shutterstock

Bury-based JD Sports, valued at £8bn, acquired a majority stake in Missy Empire in June 2021 and sold it to Frasers Group in December 2022. Both are FTSE 100 companies that own several smaller brands.

Staff told the Guardian that JD Sports and Frasers Group were made aware of problems at Missy Empire, with at least seven emails detailing seven separate complaints sent to their human resources departments since April 2022.

Some of the allegations made to the Guardian involved staff who left in recent months raising questions about what action had been taken.

Frasers Group did not respond to a request for comment.

A JD Group spokesperson said it was the majority shareholder for 18 months, but Missy Empire was “responsible for the day-to-day running of the business, including its own HR procedures.”

“I was called a fucking idiot’

Staff of Missy Empire raised complaints with Frasers Group in writing as recently as the end of last year.

The entrepreneur Mike Ashley controls Frasers Group with a near-72% stake, having made his name with Sports Direct before taking over House of Fraser department stores and acquiring an array of retail brands including Missguided and Jack Wills.

An email to the Frasers Group HR employee relations manager by one female worker, who left in the summer of 2023, raised issues of being sworn at in a conversation about holiday.

She told the HR manager: “In the conversation I was called a fucking idiot many times, mocked and told I’m not fucking needed, so I should feel free to walk out the door. Ash also said I am not allowed my holiday as he can decide when I do, and he doesn’t feel like giving me it, and if I would like to take holiday I can if I take it unpaid.”

She added: “Myself and the other employees are often spoken to in this manner. Ash’s behaviour while I have worked at Missy Empire has resulted in me having anxiety and feeling depressed.”

In an earlier email, sent in March 2023, the same employee claimed what looked like a voice recorder had been spotted in the ceiling of the staff kitchen. She shared a photograph of it with Frasers Group and asked for it to be investigated.

The staff member says no action was taken after either email, although the employee relations manager did respond on 20 March to say “Missy Empire does not have a HR function at present.” They asked for further details after the complaint about fears of being recorded.

‘A toxic workplace where people feared for their jobs’

At the start of 2023, another staff member, who worked at Missy Empire from summer 2022 but claims she was fired after Ash Siddique found a list she had been compiling of her grievances, also emailed the Frasers Group HR employee relations manager.

She raised a series of issues, including allegations of swearing, and humiliating comments about staff members’ performance and models’ body shape. The worker claimed she had been subjected to this treatment and saw others being treated in the same way.

The email claimed Ash Siddique “treats staff like they are worth nothing; patronising, degrading. Swears consistently [sic] at you like you are dirt and belittles you until you submit”.

It also stated: “[Ash Siddique] comments on people’s bodies and looks and described a previous model as ‘fat with the pig nose’.”

It went on to say that the director created “a toxic work environment where people feared for their jobs”. The woman, who was employed as a creative assistant, said Ash Siddique asked a colleague “would she rather he said please or would she rather he paid her”.

The employee alleges her complaint was not taken seriously.

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Staff allege the HR department email address at Missy Empire was controlled and monitored not by an HR manager but by Ash’s brother Ish Siddique, who is the co-founder and director, so they had nowhere to take their complaints to JD Sports or, since the takeover, to Frasers Group.

A contract seen by the Guardian shows women were not paid for overtime. Lunch breaks were unpaid and they claim they had wages deducted if they were late back.

Two female employees who felt they were dismissed without cause, and left in 2023, claimed they were in a meeting at the end of 2022 where women, when discussing pay rises, were told to join OnlyFans, a service used by sex workers to obtain payment for pornographic videos.

“We were just having a conversation about pay rises and he [Ash Siddique] said we should all be doing OnlyFans as a side hustle and he will be our agent,” a staff member claimed.

Missy Empire’s creations include bodycon outfits, bikinis, crop tops and trousers at a lower-cost price range. Its website says the designs “take influence from celebs with sex appeal, current pop culture and the latest global trends”.

One woman, in her 20s, who also felt she was dismissed without cause, said she was told in the job interview she would be one of many in her department but when she started this was not the case.

“In the first week, two people got fired and that was so normal to everyone working there. In the months I was there I saw lots of people leave,” she claimed.

She claimed staff were asked to try on clothes to see how they fit, despite this not being in their job description, and made to write down their measurements. “One time a revealing garment came in too small and he [Ash Siddique] wanted me to try it on and I said no,” she said.

A staff member who worked at Missy Empire for more than five months in 2022 described it as a “bizarre place” to work.

“There was no privacy,” she said. “Ash was very inappropriate with some members of staff.” She alleged that the director had “raging arguments” in his office with suppliers and staff members.

‘He only wanted women with big bums and big boobs’

An employee who was there until spring 2023, and who claims she was fired without a good reason, said: “He told us that models were too fat and we could not use them. He only wanted women with big bums and big boobs and a tiny waist.”

Another former employee said the director would approve pictures of what influencers could be used to promote the brand. “He was adamant that all the women had to have sex appeal … He would openly call women fat or skinny. He was very vocal.”

Three workers have raised concerns about privacy because they allege they are not given a company phone and are expected to use WhatsApp on their phones and laptops to talk to colleagues. They claim the company’s managers had access to all laptops and so could read all their personal WhatsApp messages if they wanted.

JD Group said as a “significant shareholder”, Missy Empire colleagues could “escalate any concerns through JD’s department or whistleblowing policy”. It said a “small number of issues” were “formally reported to the company” that were “investigated and addressed” in line with its procedures.

The spokesperson said: “Everyone has the fundamental right to feel safe and respected at work.”

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