What’s the story?
Pile-‘em-high and sell-‘em-cheap sports chain Sports Direct has come under heavy fire for the poor conditions that it offers to its workers. The high street store, owned by flamboyant billionaire Mike Ashley, has confessed in a report by its own lawyers to shocking levels of staff treatment, but the PR campaign to re-establish the company’s reputation has not been going too smoothly...
Mike Ashley has long been a divisive figure. Many in the City are naturally suspicious of the self-made billionaire, whose pile-‘em-high, sell-‘em-cheap model is often seen as somewhat distasteful. The firm, which buys up flagging but trusted sports brands such as Slazenger and Dunlop, then revitalises them as discount lines, has enjoyed a rollercoaster of performance since being floated on the stock market in 2007.
In recent years however, it is the treatment of the chain’s staff which has attracted the most scrutiny. Sports Direct has long come under fire for its use of ‘zero-hours contracts’, which effectively don’t’ guarantee workers any actual employment or pay if the store or warehouse they work in isn’t performing. However in recent weeks, the publication of an internally-commissioned document by the firm’s legal team has intensified the controversy around Ashley and his company’s practices.
The report reveals a series of serious issues with working practices, starting with the zero-hours policy, and going on to cover treatment of warehouse staff, alleged workplace sexism and poor staff training. Ashley has vowed to respond with a comprehensive package of reforms, but to some extent the reputational damage was done long ago.
The PR campaign has begun in earnest, but got off to a stuttering start when Ashley faced the media at a specially-orchestrated investors’ meeting at Sports Direct’s Derbyshire headquarters. The tycoon went off script when one investor revealed a dual interest as a union member (“it’s probably your fault we’re in this mess” he shouted at her), and then waved around a wad of rolled-up £50 notes in a badly-misjudged attempt at humour.
The City has called for the heads of many of Ashley’s senior staff, most of whom have joined him in a mixed message of mea culpa and “we had no idea.” It remains to be seen whether the billionaire and his team will follow through on promises to finally banish the often-horrendous working conditions suffered by staff; either way he’ll have a serious fight on his hands to stop Sports Direct from being seen as a terrible place to work.
What have others been saying?
The Telegraph provides a great timeline of Sports Direct’s highs and lows, and explains some of the background behind Ashley’s love-hate relationship with the City.
Sports Direct employees have had their own say on the treatment offered by the company, both in interviews with the BBC, and through posts on a Tripadvisor-style employment website.
Christian MP Jonathan Reynolds told Premier radio that the reforms announced by Ashley are “a good start”, but warned that there was still more to be done.
And Christian Today reports that a Christian former employee has taken Sports Direct to tribunal after being forced to work on a Sunday or risk losing their job.
#1 – WORK
Jesus famously tells his followers in Luke 10 v 7 that “a worker is worth his wages,” (apparently flying in the face of the wisdom of a church which often wants everything for free!). While he also tells us not to worry about what we’ll wear, eat or drink in Matthew 6, payment for work is one of the practical ways in which we are enabled to provide for ourselves and our families. Christians should be concerned that workers aren’t being exploited, but are paid fairly (and that includes being able to reasonably expect to complete an agreed shift instead of being sent home after a few hours).
#2 – PURSUING FAIRNESS
The Bible is full of references to justice and its pursuit, but often we can allow ourselves a very limited application of that idea. Yet while poverty in the developing world might seem more pressing, Christians should still be passionate about contesting more hidden issues of injustice right under our noses. The thread which runs through Isaiah, Micah, Jesus and others to “seek justice” applies just as much to the mistreatment of workers in British warehouses as it does to people trafficking in India, because it’s all part of the same problem of sin and selfishness.
Points for prayer
· Pray for workers in Sports Direct, particularly those in the lowest-paid positions such as Warehouse staff and cleaners; that their conditions would actually improve, and that they wouldn’t lose their jobs as a result of ‘improvements’.
· Pray for Mike Ashley, that he’d push through promised reforms within his company, and be personally convicted of the need for just practices in every area of the business, including choice of suppliers.
· Pray for lawyers, city watchdogs and politicians who have influence, that they would continue to scrutinise and keep the pressure up on the company until real change is actually delivered.
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy Chief Executive. A former editor ofYouthwork magazine and the founding Editor of sister-title Childrenswork, Martin is a popular speaker and the author of various books including ‘Youth Work From Scratch’. He lives in Reigate, Surrey with his wife Jo and their four children.