Sports Direct founder defends its practices

Sports Direct was accused of "Victorian" working practices in a select committee meeting

Mike Ashley, founder of Sports Direct, has defended the company’s working practices at a House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills select committee. The retailer is facing allegations of paying below the minimum wage and docking pay when workers arrived slightly late.

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, told the committee that workers at Sports Direct experienced "Victorian" working practices, with conditions similar to labour camps. It was alleged that staff were in constant fear of losing their jobs, and faced disciplinary action for talking too much or spending too long in the toilet.

Ashley insisted he has nothing to hide. “Will you find [Sports Direct’s sites] to be 100% perfect? Of course you won’t,” he said. “You will find things that I obviously don’t know are happening. For as long as I’m at Sports Direct that process [of improvement] goes on.”

Gemma Reucroft, UK&I HR director for Tunstall, described the allegations as “truly shocking”. “Ultimately the responsibility for organisational culture and working conditions lies with the leadership. Blaming the agencies that engage workers on their behalf is a complete avoidance of responsibility,” she told HR magazine.

“We should not lull ourselves into a false sense of security; while the conditions at Sports Direct have attracted widespread publicity and condemnation this is not an isolated case. We know that there are other rogue employers, other dreadful working conditions right here in the UK, despite the employment legislation that exists purportedly to protect employees. Rights without the ability to enforce them are meaningless. The introduction of employment tribunal fees has weakened the ability of workers to challenge exactly these sorts of employers."

Reucroft said that HR professionals, as well as leadership teams, have responsibility here. “It is our role to look hard at our own organisations and the working practices within them, and make sure that they stand up to scrutiny and that fundamentally you are treating people decently, ethically, legally and humanely.”