Imagine working on the statutory minimum wage, now set at £6.70 per hour – well below what’s needed to meet basic expenses in the first place – only to discover you aren’t getting paid even this meagre amount.
This is a harsh reality for many of the thousands of workers who staff Sports Direct warehouses.
Each day after their shift, they are rigorously searched – including being asked to roll up their trouser legs and show the top of their underwear – as part of Sports Direct’s zero-tolerance policy toward theft.
And for this daily humiliating search, which lasts about fifteen minutes, workers are not compensated. Many workers, too, are docked an extra 15 minutes’ pay if they clock in even a minute late. This pay slash is meted out even if they arrive at the actual premises on time.
A Guardian investigation, in which reporters worked undercover at a Sports Direct warehouse in Derbyshire in November, found that these employment practices mean staff are effectively being paid £6.50 per hour. In the process, Sports Direct may be pocketing millions from its reduced wage bill.
In light of the allegations, Unite has called for an official investigation into Sports Direct’s practices by HMRC.
“ ‘Gulag’ working conditions have no place in 21st century Britain,” said Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner. “The Sports Direct board should be ashamed that its workforce is treated in such an appalling way.
“Unpaid searches and the docking of pay are potentially illegal and a scandal that could cause Sports Direct reputational damage,” he added. “We are currently consulting with lawyers and would encourage Sports Direct workers at Shirebrook to contact Unite to pursue potential legal action and damages.
“In the meantime HMRC should not shrink from doing the right thing and should investigate Sports Direct as a matter of priority.”
Inside the ‘gulag’
Docking pay and unpaid searches are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to intimidatory work practices at Sports Direct, the Guardian investigation found.
The Derbyshire warehouse, known locally as ‘the gulag’, is staffed mostly by Eastern Europeans who must all adhere to the retailer’s “six-strikes” system.
Workers are given a strike for various small infractions, including “taking long/excessive toilet breaks”, “excessive chatting”, “horseplay” or “using a mobile phone in the warehouse”. If a worker gets six strikes in a six month period, they’re automatically given the sack.
Workers can also be given a strike for wearing any branded clothing – they’re given a list of 802 brands they are forbidden from wearing, including many of Sports Direct’s own brands.
Sports Direct workers live in extreme fear of losing their jobs – most have only a basic grasp of English and so worry that they might not be able to find work elsewhere. Workers’ fear hinders them from speaking out about the abuse they endure and forces them to accept long, erratic shifts if asked. This, the Guardian investigation has found, has had a dramatic impact on workers’ children.
One teacher who works at a primary school where the children of many Sports Direct workers study explained to the Guardian how tough life is for these kids.
“Yesterday one of our students was poorly, but they had come into school,” she said. “The mum works at Sports Direct but had to go to work as she is on a zero hours contract and can’t get any more work.
“We wanted to give the child medicine, but we couldn’t get hold of the mum to get consent,” she added.
“These are the sorts of things that happen quite frequently. God forbid that a child had a serious accident, because we wouldn’t be able to get hold of the parents. We would have to call the police to go into the warehouse.”
Culture of fear
Sports Direct workers can be legally subjected to such draconian work conditions because they are all agency workers, and as such have few rights and protections under law.
Unite regional officer Luke Primarolo explained.
“The majority of the workers at the Shirebrook depot are on precarious agency contracts, which while not illegal, make it virtually impossible for them to challenge unfair treatment for fear of losing their job,” he said.
“The culture of fear at Sport Direct’s Shirebrook depot is more akin to a workhouse than a FTSE 100 company,” Primarolo added. “It needs to change with agency workers being given permanent contracts by Sports Direct and paid a decent wage.”
Public pressure may force the change in work conditions and pay that Primarolo says is so desperately needed – Sport’s Direct share prices plummeted today (December 10) in the wake of the Guardian investigation published last night.
Unite community is leading the way in continuing to pile on the pressure.
Singing specially adapted carols, Unite community members, along with faith groups and campaigners, will be highlighting Sports Direct’s ‘Dickensian’ work practices outside stores in Mansfield, Leicester, Cambridge, Norwich, London, Truro, Bridgewater and North Wales this Saturday (December 12).