Sparks flew at the annual general meeting of Sports Direct yesterday as majority shareholder Mike Ashley was quizzed by shareholders and trade unionists about ‘serious shortcomings’ in working practices admitted by the firm.
Mike Ashley was in combative mood as trade Union UNITE used the opportunity to ask him about controversial working practices.
He appeared to blame the union for problems at the firm accusing them of instigating a “cartoon punch up.”
The meeting was open to the public for the first time at the company’s Shirebrook headquarters also heard that embattled chairman Keith Hellawell had offered to resign.
The company came under fire earlier this year after investigations by the Chad and others discovered discrepancies in low wages, and follows numerous allegations that workers toil under ‘Dickensian’ practices.
The meeting heard serious shortcomings had been identified in a report on working practices in the warehouse which the board “deeply regretted and apologised for”.
In a document entitled Time For Change, the company has now pledged:
Casual retail staff are now to be offered guaranteed hours instead of their current zero hours contracts.
Use of Zero hours contracts will be kept under review to ensure ‘balance and fairness’.
The company will now offer directly engaged casual retail workers the option to chose zero hours or a permanent contract with a minimum number of 12 hours guaranteed.
The board was to run a test scheme aiming to transfer 10 picking staff a month from the agencies to Sports Direct.
Steve Turner of the UNITE union said he welcomed the company’s change of direction, though the union was asking for a fully independent report rather than the one commissioned by the firm.
He questioned what the rationale was for the 12-hour permanent contract offer.
He said the employment agencies used by Sport Direct who employed some 4,000 of the workforce were at the heart of the ‘abuses’ at the firm.
He added: “They should be directly employed by Sports Direct on a permanent contract.
“The agencies are the problem with the National Minimum Wage. They’ve not paid the back pay and one is holding out. ”
He pointed out that if the company took on 10 people a month it would take 28 years for the full amount of staff to be transferred over.
Mike Ashley accused the union of ‘showboating’ and not being open and honest in their questions
“You say I want to set on ten to get the headline 28 years - I said I was staring with ten.
“I could have started with 100 and got it wrong.
In terms of the 12 hour contract he said; “Why can’t you accept it is 12 hours plus instead of I’m trying to take hours off them.
“I made a commitment to make a difference. I’m trying.
He said the 12 hour figure was for 12 hours upwards, adding:
“ Do you think if someone was working 30 hours we would take some off them because they have signed for 12 plus?”
“It is probably your fault we are in this mess because we can’t talk to you.
He added: “I made a commitment to make a difference - don’t pull me down when I am trying . I accept I have made some errors.
The only people who will suffer are the people at Sports Direct.
“You would have that lot (the media) have us having a punch up in some silly cartoon.
“Let’s not look in the rear view mirror, let’s go forward.”
More to follow.