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Welcome change of heart

Sports Direct heeds call for independent review
Hajera Blagg, Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

In a major climbdown from Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley following unrelenting pressure from Unite, the much-maligned retail giant finally caved to union, shareholder and public demands this morning  (September 20), and committed to holding an independent review into its working practices.


The change of heart follows a resolution tabled by Trade Union Share Owners (TUSO) at the retailer’s recent annual general meeting which secured the unprecedented backing of a majority of independent shareholders.


Initially, Ashley had charged his own law firm, RPC, with the task of conducting a review, but Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner argued last month that there were “serious question marks” over “both the independence and appropriateness of any review conducted either by the company itself or a legal firm which is known to have given legal advice and representation to Sports Direct in the past.”


“Unite seriously questions whether either has the expertise to understand or address employee relations issues or the extent of cultural change needed at Sports Direct for the retailer to even begin to repair its battered reputation,” Turner said as he made the case for an independent review.


Heeding the call that came not only from Unite but also from a chorus of shareholders, the wider business community and the general public, Sports Direct said today that a “forthcoming ‘360-degree’ review of working practices and corporate governance which was announced on 6 September 2016 and which was to be led by RPC will now be led by an independent party other than RPC.”


Following today’s announcement, Sports Direct share prices, which had taken a major hit after revelations of working practices at its Shirebrook warehouse which had been described as ‘Victorian’, jumped 3 per cent.


‘I’m going to fix it’

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley, who was interviewed this morning on the BBC Breakfast show, hewed to his previous claims that he did not know about the employment practices going on within his company.


He continued to pass the buck, saying the problems within Sports Direct and especially at the warehouse — where workers were ‘named and shamed’ over a tannoy if they weren’t working fast enough; were subjected to invasive searches after shifts and were reprimanded for minor infractions such as taking too long in the toilet – could be attributed to “the odd rotten apple” and were not endemic.


“It is odd, isolated instances,” he told BBC Breakfast today. “It’s the odd rotten apple in the barrel and then you say: ‘OK, I’ve got to go and find the rotten apple in the barrel’ … I’m now coming in to work very closely with HR, the warehouse and the [employment] agencies.”


But he resolved to bring in serious reform and apologised to staff for the “potentially oppressive” working practices.


“I’ve taken my eye off the ball,” he said. “I’ve said I’m going to fix it and I will.”


Beyond an independent review, Ashley has also committed to electing a member of staff to represent workers on the company’s board.


Work with us call

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner today called on the Sports Direct board to work with Unite to repair confidence and restore dignity in the workplace.


“At last Mike Ashley and his board have grasped that they need to take some very serious steps to restore shareholder, consumer and worker confidence in their employment practices,” he said.


“We have always urged, as we did at this year’s AGM with the backing of investors, that an independent review is a vital component of this company truly getting to grips with its many and serious employment problems, so we are pleased that the company has now seen sense,” Turner added.


“We offer every assistance in the next steps in Sports Direct’s journey towards fair employment, including with this review, and call on Mr Ashley to recognise the benefits of working with the union during this process as an essential way to build faith with the workforce.”


But Turner has argued that the review must not simply be a PR exercise and needed to bring about real change, which could best be achieved by putting all staff on direct, secure contracts, instead of being employed by agencies.


“We will continue to make the case that only with decent, direct employment right across the business can this company truly convince its stakeholders and the watching world that it is genuine about making the much-needed changes to practices that have shocked people everywhere,” he said.


Unite successfully pressuring Sports Direct to agree to an independent review follows another victory earlier this month when the company agreed to end zero hours contracts for retail staff.


Zero hours ban

As UNITElive reported last week, many big name brands have joined Sports Direct in only a few days by also ending zero hours contracts, including pub chain Wetherspoons and Everyman cinemas among others.


Unite argues this is evidence that there is widespread consumer and business appetite for the government to go further and ban the contracts altogether, just as New Zealand did earlier this year.


Turner called on the government today to do just that.


“Increasingly businesses are recognising that they have no place in the modern workplace and are bad for workers, bad for business and bad for the economy,” he said. “The government should now show leadership and follow the lead of government’s like New Zealand and ban zero hours contracts.”


Unite has been campaigning for a ban in the use of zero hours contracts which are widely regarded as bringing insecurity and ill treatment to workplaces. According to a recent poll for Unite, most people want the government to introduce a ban on zero hours contracts. Six in ten said they should be outlawed, including a 55 per cent of Conservative voters and 71 per cent of Labour voters.


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