The ‘Victorian’ employment practices of Sports Direct were condemned by a damning business select committee report published today (July 22), thanks to evidence given by Unite.
The committee slammed Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley for either “not knowing” about practices at the company’s Shirebrook warehouse or “turning a blind eye to such practices in the interests of maximising the revenue of Sports Direct.”
The report was published in response to a business select committee hearing held in June, at which Unite’s Steve Turner and Luke Primarolo presented detailed evidence showing how Sports Direct and the two agencies employing warehouse staff on precarious contracts had exploited workers by creating a bully culture of fear and paying under the mandatory minimum wage.
Among the practices highlighted in the report were the company’s “six strikes and you’re out” rule, in which workers are given black marks for various infractions, including taking too long in the toilet or taking time off for being ill. Once they’ve had “six strikes” workers are threatened with dismissal.
Clocking in even a minute late would lead to docking workers fifteen minutes’ pay. Staff were also subject to intrusive searches at the end of each shift which required them to wait in a queue for fifteen minutes or more, time for which they were not paid.
Thanks to a freedom of information request from Unite, it was also revealed that ambulances were called to the warehouse hundreds of times in the last two years, including once when a woman was so scared to take time off from work that she gave birth in a toilet.
The business select committee was most critical of the employment agencies which supply labour for Sports Direct. While roughly 200 warehouse workers are directly employed by Sports Direct, the vast majority – about 3,000 – are employed by Transline or Best Connection on zero or short-hours contracts.
The report highlighted evidence submitted by Unite showing that Transline had paid workers who do not have bank accounts on pre-paid debit cards which charged workers £10 each month to use the cards. They were also charged 75p for cash withdrawals, 10p for texts to the card holder of any transactions, and £1.50 for a paper statement.
The committee said “costs incurred by the workers seem totally unjustified.”
The committee sharply criticised the quality of the evidence given by both employment agencies as “woefully poor” and believes Transline may have “deliberately misled the Committee.”
The report concluded that it would continue holding Mike Ashley’s “feet to the fire” and would conduct further investigations into the employment model Sports Direct uses. The committee will also follow through by reviewing the progress Ashley has made in changing the work practices in his business as he had promised.
Praise for Unite
The committee had high words of praise for Unite in the report.
“Unite the Union has worked hard to look after the interests of workers at Sports Direct and has collated a convincing body of evidence detailing unacceptable treatment,” it noted.
Committee chairman Ian Wright MP went further and said that, working together with the press and Parliament, Unite held Ashley to account “on behalf of the public, in a way that shareholders of the company could not.”
Unite regional officer Luke Primarolo argued that it is Sports Direct’s employment model itself which generates the shocking exploitation the union has uncovered.
“From our perspective, these issues stem from the majority of the workforce being employed precariously, either through agency or zero-hours contracts,” he said. “The road to dealing with this has to involve moving the workforce on to fixed-hour, permanent contracts.
“Sports Direct is by no means the only company to engage people on such terms,” Primarolo added. “What this highlights is a wider issue of real work today. The government needs to seriously consider what legislation needs to be put in place to protect people from exploitation.”
“This has been a long and difficult journey but finally we are getting closer to justice and decent treatment for the Sports Direct workers.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said the scale of the abuse that Unite discovered was “shocking, even to this union.”
Restore dignity call
“Ordinary decent people were being ripped off left, right and centre for hundreds of pounds,” he noted. “This was pay packet robbery on an industrial scale. On top of that a culture for fear oppressed these workers into silence – one word out of line would have seen them lose their jobs for sure.
“The Committee and those we have worked with in the media to expose what has been going on at Shirebrook are to be congratulated for this investigation,” Turner added. “Unite is pleased that we are now in the early stages of dialogue with Mr Ashley about how the serious problems at Shirebrook can be put right.
“But the way to put things right at Shirebrook is simple – put the workers on fixed hour, permanent contracts,” he argued. “Give them some security and the dignity they deserve.”
But Turner noted that Shirebrook is not an isolated incident.
“The sad truth of the matter is that where people can be hired and fired at whim, bad bosses are never far away,” he said. “If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling corporate abuse, then she should start in our workplaces by restoring security, decency and fairness to working life.”