Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley has often appeared invincible by using the massive profits he has generated from forcing his employees to endure low wages and zero-hours contracts to knock out his competitors.
Today (September 9) that began to radically change as Unite threw down a challenge to the billionaire by organising a record number of protests outside his stores, leafleting the thousands working at Sports Direct (SD) giant warehouse and logistics centre and co-ordinating a series of tricky questions at the company’s AGM.
In Derby city centr,e over 20 Unite members from the local Community branch handed out leaflets and spoke to the public before entering the store as a demonstration of solidarity with the staff. Unite is seeking to ensure that SD pay the living wage of £7.85 an hour to its employees, 90 per cent of whom are on zero-hours contracts. Similar events were held in 40 other nationwide locations from as far apart as Bridport to Inverclyde.
“Unite Community members are leading the campaign in the UK against precarious work, in which Sports Direct is the biggest culprit,” said Derby Unite Community branch secretary Jim Griffiths.
At SD’s massive warehouse and logistics centre at Shirebrook, where over 3,000 are employed, Unite members dressed as Dickensian workers and holding aloft THIS IS A WORKHOUSE NOT A WORKPLACE placards and banners, distributed union literature. Leaflets in Polish included details of free Unite ESOL classes for migrant workers.
Unite regional officer Luke Primarolo stressed that “Unite exists for every worker”.
“We have negotiating rights at SD but only for around 200-300 full-time permanent staff,” he said. “The majority – and the numbers employed demonstrates there is permanent work here and at SD stores – are on zero-hours contracts that strip workers of holiday and sick pay and provide no guarantee of work or pay from one week to the next.
“We are leafleting because we want significant numbers to join Unite,” Primarolo added. “Then we would expect SD to stop using weak employment legislation and begin negotiating with us over a pay increase we have submitted for the living wage, the introduction of permanent full term contracts and a trade union presence amongst the staff.”
Shirebrook, which is near Mansfield, is Sports Direct’s headquarters, which today hosted the company’s AGM. Former police chief Keith Hellawell chaired the meeting and reported on another year of healthy profits at £313.4 million.
Even so, the Scottish Affairs Select Committee earlier this year accused Hellawell’s board of running the company like a “backstreet outfit” after evidence emerged of sharp business practices following the collapse of fashion chain, USC, which was owned by SD.
Hellawell was unsuccessfully called upon to resign by the Trade Union Share Owners (TUSO) coalition that includes Unite and whose £1.5bn assets includes SD shares. Unite Community members Colin Hampton, John Dunn and Val Graham each asked a question at the AGM.
In doing so they raised the need for decent wages and the mounting evidence of poor working conditions at Shirebrook; including staff having to wait 25 to 45 minutes unpaid to be searched at the end of each shift and the huge proportion employed by agencies rather than being taken on as permanent employees.
The company has not yet responded positively to proposals that they commit to working constructively with Unite to address these issues. But Hampton was “glad to have had the opportunity to put some pressure on the board.”
“And it’s not as if Unite is going to be going away,”he added.