In a remarkable triumph for Unite’s campaign against employment practices at the retail giant Sports Direct, the company has agreed to make significant changes following an investigation carried out by law firm RPC.
The investigation which was commissioned by Sports Direct and whose findings were published today (September 6) noted that “serious shortcomings [were] identified in working practices in [the] warehouse which the board deeply regrets and apologises for.”
The firm’s ‘six strikes and you’re out’ policy – in which workers at Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook were punished for minor infractions such as talking too much or taking too long in the toilet – will now be immediately suspended.
Forced searches of warehouse staff at the end of their shifts will be reduced, as will the number of brands staff are banned from wearing at work, from 800 brands to 30.
It previously was reported that a tannoy was used to ‘name and shame’ warehouse workers who were not working fast enough – in response, Sports Direct will ensure there is a system in place so that the tannoy is used for logistical purposes only.
No ‘culture of fear’
Other changes include additional training for warehouse supervisors to “ensure there should be no culture of fear”; a confidential system that enables staff to report sexual harassment; a potential scheme for transferring 10 agency staff each month to Sports Direct so that they become directly employed workers with enhanced rights; and appointing a full-time nurse at the warehouse to tackle health and safety issues after it was discovered that more than 100 ambulances were called to the site over a four-month period.
Sports Direct has said it will now offer its casual retail staff 12 hours of guaranteed work each week, which will replace zero hours contracts. But warehouse staff, the vast majority of whom are employed by agencies, will not be eligible.
As part of the review into its working practices, which comes the day before the company’s AGM tomorrow (September 7), Sports Direct has pledged to work closely with Unite to help ensure Sports Direct becomes “an exemplary employer”.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner noted that Unite welcomed “the commitment by the Sports Direct board to work constructively with Unite to bring about real change in its efforts to address labour abuses.”
“Our members not only work for the retailer, but shop at Sports Direct too and will be heartened by the board’s recognition of the severity of the issues Unite has raised and campaigned on over these past months,” he added.
While Turner noted that the report makes “significant progress” including through the “eradication of zero hour contracts in the stores and the six strikes and you are out system”, he affirmed that Unite will be asking the board to “go further and faster in a number areas when we engage with the company.”
“Unite still has concerns over the use of the two employment agencies, The Best Connection and Transline, which supply over 3,400 workers to the Sports Direct Shirebrook warehouse,” he explained.
“For Unite it has been their behaviour and the lack of oversight that has been the cause of so many of the abuses at Shirebrook.
“We’re calling on Sports Direct to reconsider its proposal to only move 10 agency workers a month onto direct, permanent contracts,” Turner added. “At that rate it will take over 340 months or 28 years for the whole of the agency workforce at Shirebrook to be moved on to secure, direct contracts.”
He noted that Unite believes the board can “be bolder in the coming months” by putting in place a framework agreement to move bigger numbers of agency workers into direct employment, as well eradicating the use of short hour contracts such as the annualised 336 hours contract currently in use at Shirebrook.
“We should not forget that the abuses which the Sports Direct board now want to take action on would not have been thrust into the public eye if it had not been for the work of Unite,” Turner said.
“In a world of work which is becoming ever more precarious Unite has proved that trade unions are more relevant than ever and that it pays to be a member of a trade union.
“We will seek to work constructively with Sports Direct over the coming months to ensure it stays true to its promise to restore dignity and respect to the workplace.”
As reported previously, Unite, along with the TUC and other unions forming the Trade Union Share Owners (TUSO) group, have put forward a resolution on Sports Direct’s work practices which is being supported by major City investors. The resolution will be voted on at the company’s AGM tomorrow (September 7).
Stay tuned on UNITElive tomorrow for our exclusive coverage of the AGM.