MPs grilled Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley at a select committee hearing today (June 7) following a campaign spearheaded by Unite which blew the lid off the retail giant’s shocking work practices.
After repeatedly refusing to go before MPs, Ashley was forced to answer questions when threatened with contempt of parliament for failure to give evidence.
Ashley today accepted that there were many “issues” with governance at Sports Direct, but he several times passed the buck.
He noted that decisions such as employing 80 per cent of workers on a temporary basis; management using a tannoy to “name and shame” warehouse staff into working faster; and docking 15 minutes’ pay when workers clocked in one minute late were not his own decisions.
“I can’t be responsible for everything that goes on in Sports Direct,” Ashley said.
He admitted that many of Sports Direct’s policies were “not acceptable” but when pressed by MPs on what steps he will take as part of his own internal review to right these policies, he noted that he could not specify what he would change, or when.
Ashley concurred that an independent review of Sports Direct’s employment practices would be more effective than his own internal one.
MPs pointed to the wealth of evidence that Unite had brought before the committee and asked Ashley to commit to meeting with the union, to which Ashley responded by refusing to agree to any discussions beyond an annual meeting at the company’s AGM.
The business, skills and innovation select committee also pressed representatives from the two employment agencies which supply Sports Direct with thousands of temporary workers at its main warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.
The Best Connection and Transline Group executives denied knowledge of much of Unite’s evidence, including allegations such as management commonly referring to new female employees as “new meat”; staff being hit; and one worker being called “selfish” for leaving on time.
They adamantly answered ‘no’ when asked whether anyone, to the best of their knowledge, had been mistreated at Sports Direct.
The Transline Group representatives emphasised they had constantly sought feedback from workers on their treatment at Sports Direct, and discovered no evidence of impropriety or mistreatment.
But when pressed about the extent of this feedback, Transline finance director Jennifer Hardy was forced to reveal that in a recent survey of 2,000 workers, only 45 responded.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner and Unite regional officer Luke Primarolo testified in front of the committee and highlighted the “culture of fear” at Sports Direct.
“People are scared because they are working under a system when they know they could lose their employment at any moment,” said Primarolo.
Primarolo highlighted a freedom of information request which revealed that an ambulance had been called more than 100 times to Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse in the last three years. He pointed to five separate alleged workplace incidents relating to staff who were pregnant, including one in which a woman was forced to give birth in a toilet.
Turner argued that Sports Direct’s business model, in which temporary workers live in constant fear, was becoming increasingly more common across the economy.
“This is a race to the bottom that if we don’t step in and interject and stop, will become the predominant employment model and there will be consequences for our economy,” Turner warned.
Below minimum wage
Today’s committee hearing came as Ashley admitted that his company had been effectively paying workers below the minimum wage.
As the Guardian first reported in December, warehouse staff were forced to wait up to 15 minutes after their shifts ended in order to go through an invasive security check – time for which they were not compensated.
Unite confirmed that it was in discussions with HMRC and the company on staff being given back pay.
“There is an agreement with HMRC and we are currently in the process of balloting our members … But this only affects employees [and not around 3,000 temporary workers],” said Turner.
Unite’s #SportsDirectShame banner – with notable appearances earlier this year at Glasgow Rangers and Newcastle United football games – was unfurled in locations near Parliament today before today’s select committee hearing, thanks to Unite community activists aiming to bring the issues to the attention of the British public (main picture).
“After campaigning to expose what’s been going on in Sports Direct for nine months, Mike Ashley has finally arrived at the Houses of Parliament today after much to-ing and fro-ing,” said Unite community coordinator David Condliffe.
“Our campaign is to get agency workers on to permanent contracts and to get workers paid the Living Wage,” he explained. “A company as successful as Sports Direct should be able to give people permanent contracts and security at work.”
“The next step in our community campaign is to continue working with shareholder groups, football fans, international unions and other campaign groups to bring to people’s attention the dangers of this exploitative employment model,” Condliffe added.
“As we’ve seen, the campaign is working – Sports Direct’s share prices have plummeted as shareholders have become aware of the exploitation that’s going on within this company.”
“Now, Mike Ashley is finally being made to answer for his employment model which is increasingly being replicated across the economy,” he went on to say. “It’s not good for the people of the UK, it’s not good for the people of Europe and I don’t think it’s good for business or Mike Ashley either.”
Stay tuned on UNITElive for the latest on our #SportsDirectShame campaign.
And you can watch the full committee hearing, including Unite’s testimony and Mike Ashley’s heated interrogation by MPs here.
Pic by Mark Thomas