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Union power can take on Sports Direct
Charlotte Bence, Unite London & Eastern young members committee chair, Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

Unite’s Decent Work for All campaign is about dignity at work. It’s about receiving a wage you can live on with guaranteed hours each week in a job that is safe and secure.

Given these aims, it’s no surprise that Sports Direct has been a major focus for Unite in recent months, as the shocking practices prevalent in Mike Ashley’s Shirebrook factory against agency workers have come to light. This really is a workhouse and not a workplace – something that should shame us in 2015 Britain.

Sadly the situation for Sports Direct workers is little better in the 420 high street stores across the UK, where some three-quarters of the workers are employed on zero hours contracts. Unite has been working hard to support these vulnerable people, to encourage them to organise collectively for better terms and conditions and in doing so we have uncovered some horrific examples of the abuse Sports Direct workers have been subjected to.


Culture of fear
As Chair of Unite’s London & Eastern Young Members Committee I visited a Sports Direct store to talk about Decent Work for All. I met Kirsty (not her real name), who claimed she was one of the members of staff in store on a zero hour contract. She’s in her late teens and has worked for Sports Direct for around six months.

After two months of employment, she became ill and needed to visit her GP and then go to hospital for a scan – a total of three appointments for which she had to leave work early. Prior to her health problems, Kirsty was working roughly 20 hours a week but since her appointments the hours she’s offered have been reduced by half. No official explanation has been offered, but she told us the workers know that hours aren’t really given to ‘unreliable’ people.

We’ve met workers who have been told off for having to leave work to collect sick children from school, for taking days off at short notice to visit dying family members, who have been verbally abused by members of the public, felt upset about it and simply told to toughen up – all of whom have had their hours ‘inexplicably’ reduced as a result.

Time and again we have been told, furtively, in whispered, frightened and predominantly young voices about the real culture of fear that permeates Sports Direct stores as workers know that if they are sick, or seen as a ‘problem’ because of circumstances outside of their control, then their hours, and therefore their pay, will be reduced.

None of these workers can plan for their futures because they don’t know what they’ll earn from one week to the next. None of these workers can save money because their minimum wage pay is too low. Very few of them can get a second – or third – more reliable job because they are expected to be available at a moment’s notice and will be penalised if they are not.


Stand up
The Sports Direct jobs page proclaims that ‘Everything is Changing’ – but it isn’t changing fast enough.
Unite is a strong, fighting union and our members have a proud record of supporting and winning for working people as our recent success in forcing Pizza Express to change their tips policies has shown.

The power in a union lies in members taking action together, as they did at Pizza Express, as they did at South London’s Ritzy Cinema, and campaigning for positive change collectively. We shouldn’t have to fight for dignity and respect at work, but employers like these show us that such fights are still necessary. So please, sign our petition in support of Sports Direct workers. But more than that – stand up for yourself too.



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