Business World

Friday 6 December 2019

Worker at Sports Direct gave birth in toilet, MPs told

Mike Ashley, Sports Direct, at Westminster yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Mike Ashley, Sports Direct, at Westminster yesterday. Photo: Reuters
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

A Sports Direct warehouse worker gave birth in a company toilet in 2014, and ambulances have been called 110 times to the group's mammoth premises in England, trade union Unite has told a UK parliamentary committee.

And Mike Ashley, the billionaire founder of Sports Direct, which also owns Heatons in Ireland, has conceded that the business is now so big it's like an oil tanker that has "probably" become too big for him to steer.

There are currently no Sports Direct stores in Ireland, but the company is planning to open a store at the former Boyers outlet in Dublin, having bought the premises last month for €12m.

Sports Direct sealed full ownership of Heatons in March, in a €48m deal.

Sports Direct had owned a 50pc stake in Heatons for years. Only after two blistering legal rows between the groups was the deal sealed to buy out the Irish retailer.

Yesterday Ashley, the boss of the £2.2bn (€2.8bn) retailer, claimed he was shocked at revelations of how some workers at Sports Direct's mammoth warehouse in Shirebrook are treated. The ambulance calls included 34 for workers complaining of chest pain.

Sports Direct pays a total of about £50m (€64m) a year to two companies to provide it with thousands of temporary workers for the warehouse - nicknamed the Gulag by some staff - which handles shipping of the group's internet orders.

The committee heard that if agency workers receive six 'strikes', then their employment can be terminated, and they are too afraid not to turn up to work even when heavily pregnant.

They receive the strikes against their record for infringements such as taking too long in the toilet, chatting too much at work, or calling in sick.

Mr Ashley said he's "not Father Christmas" but that it's "not right" that workers should be docked 15 minutes' pay for being one minute late.

During the near 90-minute grilling, he pleaded ignorance of much of the finer operational detail of Sports Direct.

But he admitted that at one point workers had been effectively paid below the minimum wage because they weren't being paid while queuing to go through security at the warehouse. About 3,000 people work at the controversial warehouse, but just a small proportion of them are directly employed by Sports Direct.

Asked by a committee member why more staff couldn't be directly employed, Mr Ashley claimed that to do so would have been impossible given the growth rate of the firm.

"This has been a process of growth, and the growth has been too big," he said, with his ex-wife Linda, with whom he has reconciled, seated behind him.

He also said that perhaps ambulances had been called so many times to the warehouse because of overly anxious co-workers. He suggested that in some cases ambulances may not need to have been called if someone feeling under the weather had say down for a few minutes with a glass of water.

Irish Independent

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