Unite Community North Derbyshire branch chair, Val Graham, has attended Sports Direct’s AGM for the last three years.
Speaking after the shareholder meeting, she said, “When Unite representatives first attended the AGM two years ago and began asking questions about firm’s work practices we received unsatisfactory answers.
“Last year’s AGM was an improvement because of Unite’s campaign and the media interest that generated. There were promises made to improve things during that meeting, which was very well attended. Despite the pledges we still had major concerns over precarious work conditions.
“Now at this year’s AGM we’re back to the way things were before, with vague, non-committal answers over the company’s use of zero hour contracts and agency workers.” Graham said Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawell spent the meeting hiding behind the workers’ board representative, Alex Balacki, who was installed in April and does not speak to employees at the firm’s Shirebrook warehouse.
Hellawell is facing a shareholder revolt over corporate governance failings and will discover if he has to step down later today, after an AGM vote on his future is counted. Graham said,
“Hellawell was playing the workers’ rep – who said that employees are overwhelmingly happy with their terms and conditions – off against Unite and the workers who speak to us.
“Sports Direct said he was democratically elected but we don’t know how he was chosen, how he communicates with the workforce or whether they can tell him the truth.
“The truth is that without job security Sports Direct staff are not free to speak their minds. They need proper union representation so they can be heard without risk.”
Graham said one positive note from the meeting was that Sports Direct have agreed to meet with Unite. However, she did not expect much to come from the meeting. She said, “I predict they will end up arguing the same things they did today: that zero hours and temporary working are legal and that the workforce prefers them. That’s not what Unite is hearing from workers at the firm.”
Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands, Annmarie Kilcline, said the union’s campaign against Sports Direct’s work practices would intensify.
“It won’t finish until the wrongs of Sports Direct have been rectified: zero hour contracts, precarious work and the mistreatment of staff,” Kilcline said.
“We gave them a chance to put changes in places after last year’s AGM and the promises they made have been broken. Nothing’s changed, so the foot is not coming off the gas now. We will pursue Sports Direct until the workforce is organised and they are treated in a way that’s fit for the 21st Century.”
Unite member Tom Kirkhan volunteers on a Unite sponsored initiative to teach foreign-born Sports Direct employees English. After 18 months working with firm’s staff, Tom also said there was very little evidence that things have changed at the warehouse.
He said, “There’s still the same problems. People can’t get regular shift patterns, they have problems organising leave, there’s issues with the general facilities and toilet breaks. “There’s a general feeling of insecurity – people don’t know what to expect. I know people who have worked there eight years and are still on a zero-hour contract – they could be laid off tomorrow.”
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