“I’m not Father Christmas”: Sports Direct boss grilled on warehouse working conditions


Mike Ashley finally appeared before MPs after being threatened with contempt of Parliament

THE BILLIONAIRE owner of retail chain Sports Direct Mike Ashley told MPs he could not be held entirely responsible for the poor working conditions in his Derbyhire warehouse, because the company had become too big to keep track of. 

Finally making an appearance before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee yesterday [8 June] after repeatedly refusing to do so, Ashley was grilled by MPs over the conditions for staff at Sports Direct’s Derbyshire warehouse. 

Ashley argued that he has a close relationship with many of the staff and tries to keep informed about conditions in the warehouse, but added “I’m not Father Christmas, I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful.” 

“I can’t keep track of all the companies we’ve got” Mike Ashley

An undercover investigation by the Guardian last year showed staff at the vast warehouse in Shirebrook were effectively being paid less than the minimum wage due to lengthy security searches; a further investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches in April 2016 found more evidence of draconian working practices, under which staff were reportedly too scared to take a sick day and were docked pay for being one minute late. 

The revelations caused a slump in the company’s share price at the time. 

Unite the Union accused Ashley at yesterday’s hearing of having “nineteenth century working practices” in Sports Direct.

Steve Turner, Unite’s assistant general secretary, described the ‘six strike system’ imposed on employees, under which a sick day, or chatting to colleagues, could result in a worker losing their job. Turner said: “When you have people under that much fear they come into work ill and that creates a significant health and safety risk”. 

Ashley, who rarely makes public appearances, told a packed public galley that the security checks should now take very little time, and that he was willing to listen to other calls for change. He admitted that he had lost control of the company, comparing it to an “inflatable” that had become an “oil tanker”. 

“I can’t keep track of all the companies we’ve got”, Ashley told MPs. “It’s just too big.” 

In 2015 Sports Direct sacked 200 workers at its warehouse in Ayrshire, infamously giving them just fifteen minutes’ notice, when the company’s Republic division bought up troubled retail chain West Coast Capital (USC). Many of the Ayrshire workers were employed via agencies and so were not entitled to redundancy pay. 

Ashley admitted at the hearing that 80 per cent of Sports Direct staff are on zero-hours contracts. 

Picture courtesy of Martin Pettitt

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