Sports Direct's 'Dickensian' working practices will spread exploitation in the UK, Unite says

Workers are so afraid to take time off that one woman gave birth in the toilet in 2014, Unite said

‘Nothing to hide’? Mike Ashley at Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire
‘Nothing to hide’? Mike Ashley at Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire

Sports Direct’s “Dickensian” working practices will chip away at employment rights in the UK, leading to exploitation of workers in other sectors, the union, Unite, has warned.

The UK’s biggest union said that agency workers are vulnerable in any sector where flexibility is needed, including the service industry, transport and retail.

Unite said that Sports Direct deprives workers of justice because they are fear losing their jobs if they challenge a situation where they are treated unfairly.

Sports Direct “punishes” employees with a strike system for challenging their employer, taking too long in the toilet or taking time off, said Luke Primarolo,a Unite regional officer. When the worker has six strikes, their work is terminated.

Mike Ashley, the founder of the brand, has been told by MPs that he is accountable for working conditions at the stores, where workers were "treated as commodities" rather than human beings.

Mr Primarolo, giving evidence to an inquiry into working practices at Sports Direct by MPs on the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, said that workers in the retailer’s warehouse at Shirebrook in Derbyshire were scared.

“They are scared because they’re working under the strike system, which means that those who work through an agency don’t have any recourse. If they’re accused of doing something wrong, they’re given a strike,” Mr Primarolo said.

As such, people come into work when they are sick or tired, which is a health and safety risk in the workplace, he added.

Ambulances have been called to Sports Direct dozens of times in the past two years.

A total of 76 ambulances or paramedic cars were dispatched to the distribution centre's post code between January 2013 and December 2014, an investigation revealed.

Some 36 cases were classed as “life-threatening”, including chest pains, breathing problems, convulsions and strokes.

Cameron on zero hours contract

Workers are so afraid to take time off that one woman gave birth in the toilet in 2014, Unite said.

Staff are also subject to searches and security processes that can last as long as 15 minutes, during which time they are not paid.

Steven Turner, the assistant general secretary of Unite, was asked if Sports Direct had changed its working practices in light of media coverage and union pressure. He said that conditions had not improved, but that the 20p rise in the minimum wage had offset some of the pay lost during such checks.

Agency workers are employed through Transline on contracts that guarantee 336 hours per year or the equivalent of 1.4 hours a day. This is the minimum requirement set by HRMC.

Campaigners dressed in Victorian clothing protest against Sports Direct's use of zero hours contracts outside the company's Annual General Meeting

One in five Sports Direct employees is employed through agencies. “Our view is that this is a business model based on exploitation,” Mr Turner said.

“This will become a race to the bottom that if we don’t step in, which will have consequences for our economy,” he added.

Iain Wright MP, who is chairing the hearing, has said that the meeting is about more than just Sports Direct.

“One of the things that we want to hear is what it’s like to work in Britain in 2016,” Wright told the BBC.

“Are we going down a road of greater insecurity, zero-hours contracts? Is the balance right for that, for people working in a very competitive environment, to make sure there is no exploitation?”

Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct founder, agreed to appear in front of MPs in a surprise decision on 6 June, after MPs considered applying legal sanctions to force him to attend the hearing.

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