‘More Of A Victorian Workhouse Than A Warehouse!’

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YS lobby of last year’s TUC Congress against slave labour conditions and for proper jobs for youth
YS lobby of last year’s TUC Congress against slave labour conditions and for proper jobs for youth

THE denigration of workers, wage payment systems of dubious legality and a disregard for health and safety law are among the catalogue of abuses uncovered at Sports Direct’s vast Shirebrook warehouse, a damning new report confirmed on Friday.

‘More of a Victorian workhouse than a warehouse’ was one of the comments on the working conditions at Sports Direct’s warehouses. The report, published by the House of Commons’ Business Select Committee, follows months of campaigning by Unite the Union and others to shine a spotlight on the endemic bad practices at the retail warehouse.

Unite termed the mistreatment as ‘pay packet robbery on an industrial scale’ pointing to a ‘culture of fear’ at the warehouse with workers scared to speak out against wage abuses, or report the frequent calls to the emergency service to deal with unwell workers.

One woman worker, terrified of losing her job, gave birth in the toilets because she was too afraid to take time off. Reacting to the report, Unite said that this was ‘absolutely not the last word, this can only be the beginning’, in the fight against the mistreatment of working people all too common in the UK today.

The union linked much of the blame for worker abuse to the rapid growth in insecure agency labour in the modern workplace. It called again for Sports Direct to prove that it was serious about improving working conditions by replacing the temporary contracts for workers with more secure employment.

The committee reserved particular scorn for the agency employed by Sports Direct to supply workers. Unite had revealed that the Transline agency was responsible for the introduction of the pre-paid cards whereby hundreds of workers had to pay a £10 administrative charge for a card to access their wages.

In a damning passage in the report, the cross-party committee said that the evidence given by the Transline agency ‘cast doubt on (their) probity’, suggesting that the agency had ‘deliberately misled the committee…. which could be considered a contempt of parliament’, warning the agency that it has two weeks to explain its evidence or face further action.

Many of the shocking practices at the Sports Direct warehouses are detailed in the conclusions of the report, some of which are reproduced below. ‘The “six strikes and you’re out” policy is used as a punitive measure, which denigrates the workers at Sports Direct and gives the management unreasonable and excessive powers to discipline or dismiss at will, reinforced by their power to control the hours offered to each worker.

‘Workers are unlikely to challenge strike decisions, because they know if they do, they probably will not be offered any more hours in the future… The way the business model at Sports Direct is operated, in both the warehouse at Shirebrook and in the shops across the country, involves treating workers as commodities rather than as human beings with rights, responsibilities and aspirations.

‘The low-cost products for customers, and the profits generated for the shareholders, come at the cost of maintaining contractual terms and working conditions which fall way below acceptable standards in a modern, civilised economy…

‘At our oral evidence session, Mr Ashley put on record, for the first time, that workers had been paid below the minimum wage, as a result of the unpaid, compulsory searching of all workers at the Shirebrook warehouse…

‘We are concerned about the legality and fairness of the voluntary schemes, such as the pre-paid debit card and the insurance scheme, to which agency workers at Shirebrook contribute…

‘We are pleased to hear that the practice of deducting 15 minutes pay for clocking in just one minute late on arrival at the warehouse, or on return from a break, has been changed.

‘We believe these various schemes are opaque, not well communicated to the workforce and have the effect – deliberately or otherwise – of taking money from the wages of low paid workers. This is unwarranted.

‘The system now rounds up in five-minute segments, rather than 15-minute segments. However, the system of rounding up by 5 minutes, rather than rounding down by 5 minutes, still seems ungenerous…

‘We are concerned at the number of (health and safety) cases, the number and frequency of ambulance visits to Shirebrook warehouse, and the personal testimonies recounting health and safety breaches…

‘Mr Ashley told us that, ultimately, he is always responsible for Sports Direct… He must be held accountable for some appalling working practices at both the Sports Direct shops and warehouses, either for not knowing about them, or for turning a blind eye to such practices in the interests of maximising the revenue of Sports Direct.’

Steve Turner, Unite’s assistant general secretary, said: ‘This has been a long and difficult journey but finally we are getting closer to justice and decent treatment for the Sports Direct workers. The scale of the abuse we found was shocking, even to this union. Ordinary decent people were being ripped off left, right and centre for hundreds of pounds.

‘This was pay packet robbery on an industrial scale.  On top of that a culture for fear oppressed these workers into silence – one word out of line would have seen them lose their jobs for sure. The committee and those we have worked with in the media to expose what has been going on at Shirebrook are to be congratulated for this investigation.

‘Unite is pleased that we are now in the early stages of dialogue with Mr Ashley about how the serious problems at Shirebrook can be put right. But the way to put things right at Shirebrook is simple – put the workers on fixed hour, permanent contracts. Give them some security and the dignity they deserve.

‘However, Shirebrook is not an isolated incident. The sad truth of the matter is that where people can be hired and fired at whim, bad bosses are never far away. If the Prime Minister is serious about tackling corporate abuse, then she should start in our workplaces by restoring security, decency and fairness to working life.

‘The new powers coming to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority later this year cannot come too soon but they must also come with adequate resources. Rogue employers must fear the knock at the door. So this report is absolutely not the last word – it can only be the beginning, which is why we call upon the government to work with us to eliminate casual, zero hours employment that has ballooned in Britain.’

Unite’s campaign to win justice for the Sports Direct warehouse workers was stepped up in 2015. As a result of Unite’s fight for fair wages for the warehouse workers, the HMRC has now announced that it will extend its inquiry into the non-payment of the minimum wage to include the company’s 13,000 shop workers.

It is clear that a fight remains to be fought at Sports Direct, which has scrabbled to clear up a few minor but unpleasant practices which were placed in the spotlight and caused a scandal.

The struggle against low wages and zero hours contracts, which millions of mainly young people barely exist on in the UK, needs to be pushed through to the finish.