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‘There’s a tide turning’

Unite stands up to Sports Direct in UK-wide demo
Hajera Blagg, Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

From the House of Commons – where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn raised the plight of low-paid, insecure workers at PMQs – to the streets of London to the sports retailer’s warehouse in Shirebrook and many more towns and cities between, Sports Direct today (September 6) was in the national spotlight over its broken promises.


It’s been a year since Sports Direct’s last AGM, when the retailer, now infamous for its exploitative employment practices, said it had had a change of heart and would end zero hours contracts.


Broken promises

But exactly a year on, Sports Direct, under the auspices of owner and founder Mike Ashley, still keeps thousands of its workers guessing whether they’ll have any work from one day to the next.


Unite Community staged 30 demonstrations across the UK today demanding that Sports Direct keep its promises to end zero hours contracts.


Dozens of campaigners gathered outside a Sports Direct outlet at London’s iconic shopping thoroughfare on Oxford Street, where they made their voices heard in defence of the retailer’s workers, who face not only zero hours contracts but low pay and a culture of management surveillance and bullying.


Most recently, Unite revealed that Sports Direct has been using touch pads with happy and sad faces to gauge worker satisfaction in its Shirebrook warehouse.


Unite understands that finger recognition technology is being used, with workers asked to touch a happy or sad emoji as they clock in to indicate whether they feel they are treated with respect. Workers pressing the sad emoji are called in for a meeting with management.


Unite Community member Jacqui Burnett (pictured below) was out supporting Sports Direct workers today because she’s intimately acquainted with zero hours contracts – she used to be on one herself.


Unite community member Jacqui Burnett

“I never knew from one day to the next whether I’d have work,” she explained. “I have family members who are also on zero hours contracts. People in insecure work need to be able to plan for the future. They should be able to have hopes and dreams just like everyone else.”


As Unite community members held banners, waved ‘emoji’ placards and yelled chants, while wearing ’emoji’ masks, they also had conversations with the public as they handed out leaflets.


Jacqui spoke at length with a passer-by, an electrician.


“He wanted to know why we were here and I explained to him what’s been going on at Sports Direct – he was shocked,” Jacqui said. “Sometimes people are so busy getting on with their own lives that they don’t realise what’s going on at places like Sports Direct. That’s why actions like these are so important — to get the word out.”


Young people

Unite young member Joe, 29, (pictured below) who is also part of Unite’s hospitality and bar and restaurant workers branch, joined today’s demonstration in support of young people especially, who form the majority of people in insecure work.


Unite hospitality branch member Joe, 29


“Precarious, zero hours contracts affect so many people of our generation,” he said. “In order to be able to live, especially in London, you need to have guaranteed hours, you need decent pay – it should be a basic human right.”


Joe believes young people need unions now more than ever before.


“Most of my friends, those in their teens and twenties, work in hospitality or retail at some point. We’re overrepresented in sectors where insecure work is rife. If we want to get our voices heard we have to organise.”


Unite young member Helen Pattison (pictured below), 26, agrees.


Unite young member Helen Pattison, 26


“What’s happening with the McDonald’s strike and the Sports Direct actions today show that we [young people in insecure work] are not actually weak. We do stand up for ourselves. We just need to organise.”


Like Jacqui, Helen too has been on a zero hours contract before, which motivates her to now stand up for others on insecure contracts.



“It’s such an unbalanced contract – employers have all the power,” she explained. “They use it to bully people. They say, ‘If you really want your hours next week, you must go over and above what you actually have to do.’ You have to, for example, stay late unpaid.”


“I know someone who didn’t technically get sacked – but they just stopped giving him hours which amounts to the same thing.”


Unite national officer Rhys McCarthy (pictured below), speaking at Unite’s London Sports Direct demo, told of the same bullying that Helen had experienced on a zero hours contract – and at Sports Direct, this bullying can go to horrific extremes.



Unite national officer Rhys McCarthy


“Women [have given] birth in toilets because they’re in fear if they go to prenatal appointments, they’ll get sacked,” McCarthy explained. “People have had heart attacks at work and turn up ill. You’re sacked if you’re late; you’re sacked if you talk too much.


“This is why we need a union in McDonald’s, this is why we need a union in Sports Direct,” he added. “There’s a tide turning. We need to get behind a Labour party, and elect a Labour party so we can send these bad bosses a message – enough is enough. Workers demand respect.”


Get behind our campaign

Unite regional Community coordinator David Condliffe said the union would not let up until Sports Direct changes its ways.


“One year on from its AGM we’re here today again because Sports Direct has not honoured its commitments to put people on guaranteed hours contracts,” he explained. “They’re still employing people on zero hours  contracts – 21,000 people who have no security in the world of work. They can’t get a contract for a phone; they can’t get a loan for a car.


“We’re here today to challenge Sports Direct to do the right thing,” Condliffe added. “We’re also asking the wider public to get behind our campaign, follow us on Twitter at #SportsDirectShame and help us win this campaign.


“If we win at Sports Direct and we win at McDonalds, we win within wider society. We make the world of work a safe place, a secure place, and a happy place. When we get organised, we can fight together and we’ll win this.”


Check out UNITElive for more updates on Sports Direct.


  • All photos by Stefano Cagnoni

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