Sports Direct's Mike Ashley tells MPs: 'I'm not Santa'

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Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley today claimed he is attempting to improve working practices but told MPs: “I’m not Father Christmas.” 

The retail tycoon told the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that he had taken some steps to improve conditions at his Shirebrook warehouse and said  he had “hopefully addressed some of those issues”.

But he admitted that MPs would still find problems, and added: “I’m not Father Christmas, I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful.” 

Sports Direct has been criticised over alleged Victorian working conditions at the warehouse after an inquiry revealed that a number of the chain’s temporary workers were receiving hourly rates of pay in effect below the minimum wage.  

He is in talks over back pay with HMRC, according to the trade union Unite. 

Ashley was asked whether he was the best man to personally undertake a review into working practices, which he announced in December.

“In some ways, I am not the right person, I’m not an expert in every area of employment,” said Ashley, adding that there could be others better-qualified.

However, the Newcastle United owner, wearing a black and white tie, said that by undertaking the project himself “there can be no hiding from anything”.

Ashley said he struggles to keep on top of Sports Direct’s rapidly expanding empire and its staff. “I can’t keep track of all the companies we have got across the world… it’s just to big,” he added.

Unite told the committee that the UK should curb zero hours contracts to prevent the likes of Sports Direct abusing workers’ rights.

It cited new legislation in New Zealand which demands that employees are given guaranteed hours that are specified and written into a contract. 

The union said that the UK “should bring forward measures to regulate precarious and insecure work”.

But Unite warned in its evidence: “Zero and short hours contracts, short-term contracts and mutations of self-employment are increasingly becoming a feature in the UK economy. 

“If left to their own devices, companies like Sports Direct and employment agencies will continue to stretch the law and engage in what we believe to be wholly exploitative work practices.”

Unite alleged that warehouse workers for Sports Direct, employed via agencies The Best Connection and Transline, are effectively “taxed” if they do not have a bank account for their wages to be paid into.

The firms charge workers a £10 one-off fee for a pre-paid debit card onto which their wages are paid, said the union, adding that workers are then charged a management fee of £10 per month and   for cash withdrawals by the card issuer.  

Witnesses from Transline and The Best Connection appeared before the committee. Neither were available to comment on Unite’s claims, while Sports Direct declined to comment.

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June 7, 2016 |
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