ZOE STREATFIELD writes on the importance of trade union activists and young people in bringing Mike Ashley’s Dickensian work practices to light but warns that there is still much to do
SHAMING Sports Direct into ditching zero-hours contracts and some of its worst employment practices has been a huge victory for young workers and trade union activists.
Owner Mike Ashley was one of Britain’s most secretive billionaires until the Unite union’s campaign brought his super-exploitation of workers to light.
And last week he faced further pressure from angry shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting.
Unite’s long-running campaign has knocked Sports Direct off the FTSE 100 and the company is warning that profits are expected to drop by 21 per cent to £300 million next year.
While investors want a quick fix to deflect negative public perception and protect profits, it is important to push home the victory by making sure the company actually delivers on its promises and for us to fight for further victories.
Although the media has tried to downplay Unite’s role in securing this victory, it is clear that the union’s public campaign outside stores, handing out leaflets, collecting signatures and speaking to staff was key to Sports Direct’s response.
In Scotland, activists held several protests outside Sports Direct stores, setting up a goal for members of the public to score against keeper Mike Ashley — played by Scottish TUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham.
To the annoyance of many Rangers fans, Ashley owns a share of the club, which fans believe he bought on the cheap in order to flog expensive Rangers kits in his own stores.
Unite Community played on this by organising banner drops calling for an end to zero-hours in the stadium at Rangers games. Sports Direct’s catalogue of offences is shameful.
As well as employing workers on zero-hours contracts, guaranteeing them no security of income, Ashley was rumbled for failing to pay his workers the basic minimum wage — through 15-minute unpaid security checks and deducting wages from workers who were just a minute late getting in or returning from breaks.
MPs probing conditions at the notorious Shirebrook distribution centre found that workers were so scared to phone in sick — in case they lost their job — that in one case an employee went into work and suffered a stroke.
Unite revealed that ambulances were called out to Shirebrook 110 times in three years, and attended situations as serious as births and miscarriages, with one woman giving birth in a toilet at work.
It was also revealed that there was a culture of harassment and fear, where reportedly women working on temporary contracts were offered permanent positions in return for sexual favours — Ashley said he was “100 per cent unaware” of such things.
Thanks to Unite’s young members and community section, the media and politicians picked up on what was going on at Sports Direct, leading to Ashley being forced to appear before a select committee of MPs in June.
For months, Ashley refused to appear before the Commons business, innovation and skills select committee and had to be threatened with being held in contempt of Parliament before he finally agreed.
The meeting, at which Ashley apologised but insisted that he wasn’t Father Christmas and couldn’t be held responsible for everything that goes on in his business, led to him commissioning an internal review of what Unite described as “Dickensian” employment practices.
After the scathing parliamentary report, Ashley agreed to offer staff at least 12 guaranteed hours a week, and end the “six strikes and you’re out” rule — which saw workers getting a strike for taking “too long” in the toilet or taking time off to look after their sick kids.
Sports Direct has also pledged to employ a full-time nurse and welfare officer, as well as bringing in a confidential system for reporting sexual harassment following the claims that female staff members were intimidated in the warehouse.
The firm has also promised fewer security searches and cutting down the bizarre list of brands staff are not allowed to wear to work, going from 800 to 30.
But these victories are qualified and there is still much more work for unions to do to force Ashley to negotiate properly.
The ban on zero-hours contracts will only apply to workers employed in Sports Direct stores, not the thousands at the distribution centre employed through agencies.
And underemployment is just as big an issue as zero-hours contracts.
Workers employed on 12-hour contracts at the minimum wage for over 25s are still only guaranteed £86.40 a week, and they too can be sent home early from shifts if they have already worked their hours for that week.
Even if they get additional hours, any sick pay or holiday would be paid at a rate as though they’re working 12-hour weeks.
Unite still has concerns about the agencies used to supply workers at Shirebrook, The Best Connection and Transline, warning that they have been responsible for many abuses at the site.
Sports Direct have proposed to move just 10 agency workers a month onto direct, permanent contracts, which means that it will take 28 years for the whole agency workforce to be moved onto secure contracts.
Young workers also know that the exploitation going on at Sports Direct is just the tip of the iceberg in bad employment practice.
Zero-hours contracts, low pay, bullying managers, limited trade union rights and representation are all too common features of employment for young people.
Many of these workplaces, supermarkets, bars, hotels and restaurants can’t be organised using traditional methods, and it’s been exciting seeing new ways of organising and taking direct action evolve.
Last year, the Scottish TUC launched Better than Zero, a campaigning body run by young workers specifically targeting these new employers.
The campaign has targeted one of Glasgow’s most notorious employers, Stefan King, who owns several popular bars and restaurants through his G1 Group. Like Ashley, he has been caught not paying workers the legal minimum wage, by making deductions from workers’ pay to cover the cost of uniform and training.
G1 said it had stopped the practice last year after the Business Department accused it of underpaying staff by more than £45,000.
Better than Zero, along with Unite, also challenged Mexican restaurant chain Las Iguanas on its tips policy, where workers had to pay back a percentage of their tips to the restaurant.
The company yielded to the pressure and workers now receive all of their tips.
There are still thousands of dodgy employers out there making millions by denying workers basic rights and a basic standard of living.
It is time that unions take on the struggle against these employers.