Has Mike Ashley stepped up to the plate at Sports Direct?

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 camp).

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 dismissed.

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 done that”.

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.

Sarah Owbridge is a paralegal at leading employment law firm BDBF.