Sports Direct attacked for 'workhouse conditions' but they are by no means unique to Mike Ashley's operation

The report of the Business, Innovation & Skills Committee is shaprly critical of Sports Direct but also highlights the need for a wider debate about the way companies treat their 'human resources' 

James Moore
Friday 22 July 2016 14:59 BST
Mike Ashley, founder of sports clothing retailer Sports Direct, gives evidence to the business, skills and innovation parliamentary select committee
Mike Ashley, founder of sports clothing retailer Sports Direct, gives evidence to the business, skills and innovation parliamentary select committee

The Business Innovation and Skills Committee pulled no punches with its report into the employment practices at Sports Direct.

“The evidence we heard points to a business whose working practices are closer to that of a Victorian workhouse than that of a modern, reputable High Street retailer,” said chairman Iain Wright alongside its publication.

The report itself called for Mike Ashley, the founder and driving force behind the business, to be “held to account” for failings such as neglecting to pay staff the national minimum wage. Not to mention a culture of ignoring the basic wellbeing of staff that is truly disturbing.

How else to describe the allegations that surfaced of some workers being promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours? Or of a woman so frightened of losing her job that she resorted to giving birth in the toilet? Or of the repeated calls to ambulances to deal with sick staff too scared to stay home?

It isn’t just Mr Ashley that is at fault, of course. While the ultimate responsibility is his, let’s not forget the shadowy executives behind the employment agencies, The Best Connection and Transline Group, that supply staff to Sports Direct and that thus colluded in the exploitation of them for 30 pieces of silver. Did I say 30? I meant £50m, which is what Sports Direct pays two organisations that “do not seem to have a basic understanding of employment law and practices”.

The second named came in for particularly scathing criticism. It was accused of having “deliberately misled the Committee” with the evidence it submitted. I would suggest that Transline is not an organisation any reputable business would want to have

dealings with after this. It speaks volumes that its joint chief executives, Paul Beasley and Jon Taylor, were too gutless to appear before the committee, sending along flunkies to blink in the public spotlight. Their singular achievement has been to make Mr Ashley, who had to be all but dragged before the committee himself, look good.

But while throwing bricks at the richly deserving is fun, there is a wider point to be made here. Sports Direct and its nasty little partners are not alone. The practices that this report and others have highlighted may be extreme, but they are not unique. The exploitative relationship between employer and employee at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook workhouse, sorry, warehouse, can doubtless be found in lesser Shirebrooks up and down the country.

They are a natural consequence of an immoral economic model.

It is not necessarily sadism that motivates the people imposing policies such as the docking of 15 minutes of pay from staff when they turn up one minute late, or the forcing of staff to wait unpaid in lines to undergo security searches before they can leave.

Sadism can exist when exploitative relationships are fostered, it is true. But the reason for Sports Direct operating practices like that is because they work. If the employee is fined 15 minutes' pay for being one minute late that’s 14 minutes' free work for the company. When added up across a vast workforce that translates into a handy addition to the bottom line, and a handy corresponding addition to Mr Ashley’s personal fortune.

Practices like this are an inevitable consequence of a culture that holds members of staff to be not people but “human resources” and then leaves the “human” part of the equation at the door when they report for work.

This is the current Anglo Saxon model of capitalism, red in tooth and claw. I hate to raise it again, but Brexit could make it worse. There is a reason it was backed by so many wealthy right wingers. They read reports like this and ask what the problem is before muttering about economic realities and wondering which parts of the Ashley playbook they can apply to their own businesses.

A banker friend of mine with generally liberal principles (they do exist) wondered whether one of the reasons why“ordinary” Britons voted for Brexit in such numbers was the repeated attempts by Government to opt out of, or water down, provisions in EU treaties designed to protect and preserve workers’ rights. Because of this they therefore failed recognise the value of the EU to them. Might it have been different if the EU had been able to hit Mr Ashley with a huge fine and an order to make improvements? It’s an interesting thought experiment to conduct.

Sports Direct shares barely moved in response to the report. The City doesn’t much care what Mike Ashley gets up to as long the money keeps on rolling in and the analysts’ forecasts are met.

Thuggish employment practices are far from unknown in the financial centre. But in the City the money is usually good enough to compensate. Its workers might hope to have enough money squirrelled away to allow them get out if it gets too bad.

As it turns out, however, Sports Direct has been suffering as a result of its bad behaviour. The drip feed of negative publicity has tarnished its brand. Customers are now inclined to look over their shoulders before nipping in to pick up their kids’ school sports kit. Plenty have sought out alternatives.The trouble, as I have said, is that those alternatives might not treat their staff much better than Sports Direct does.

If there is anything good to come from this unlovely saga, it is for it to serve as a catalyst for a wider debate about what it means to be an employee in modern Britain. About what is and is not acceptable and how to legislate effectively to root out the latter.

While the focus will be on the report’s findings concerning Mr Ashley and Sports Direct, just as important is the committee’s pledge to look at the wider issues raised by the affair. I hope the MPs that sit on it are as good as their word. Then something worthwhile might emerge.

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