We have all heard plenty of dark tales in the press about
working conditions at Sports Direct – particularly the
warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, which some workers have
described as "the gulag" (i.e. a Stalin-era forced labour
The Guardian last year reported that staff would be docked 15
minutes' pay if they clocked in a minute late, and that staff
were effectively paid below minimum wage due to long queues at
security checkpoints after clocking out. The report also described
a draconian '6 strikes and you're out' system which saw
staff get a strike for, among other things, taking too long in the
toilets. Receiving 6 strikes in any rolling 6 month period got you
Unite spoke of a "culture of fear" in the
warehouse which caused staff to turn up to work when they were too
ill to be there (reported sickness absences being a strike,
naturally). Unite pointed to 110 ambulance call-outs to the site
over two years, including one occasion when a female worker had
given birth in the toilets (presumably thereby earning a strike for
taking too long in the toilet).
The media was watching, then, when Mike Ashley, the
company's well-known founder and chairman, took to the
microphone to answer MP's questions about the allegations.
Ashley conceded that there were problems with the time it took
to pass through security but insisted that the bottlenecking issue
was since resolved. He agreed that docking 15 minutes' pay for
1 minutes' lateness was "unacceptable".
Ashley agreed that "Sports Direct, if it is abusing
things, deserves the cane" and said that a review into
the retailer's working practices would be conducted.
Since then, the retailer has faced criticism from the BIS select
committee, the company's own lawyers in a report following
their review, and its shareholders at the AGM.
The publicity seems to be making a difference, as some changes
have been made. Sports Direct has paid staff a total of £1
million to compensate them for underpayments of the minimum wage
and the 6 strikes policy has been suspended. Criticism regarding
the use of zero-hours contracts saw the company agree to offer
guaranteed hours to staff who want them.
Ashley has also been courting the press – he recently
appeared on BBC Breakfast and claimed that the company had
paid £200 million in staff bonuses in the past 5 years. In
particular, Ashley said that "the cleaning lady got an
£80,000 bonus on top of her normal pay. No one in the UK has
In the interview, he reiterated his statements from the BIS
committee hearing to the effect that he did not know how workers
were being treated across the company. One hopes that this will
change now that Ashley has taken over as CEO after the former Chief
Executive, Dave Foley, tendered a surprise resignation.
NB: This article is an updated version of one originally
published on 4 July 2016.
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