Union calls for an end to zero hour contracts as it demonstrates outside Sports Direct Annual General Meeting

Sports Direct protesters.
Sports Direct protesters.

Hundreds of trade unionists have demonstrated outside the Annual General Meeting of Sports Direct calling for an end to zero hours contracts.

Trade union UNITE organised the protest on Wednesday at the Shirebrook headquarters of the sports retail giant owned by billionaire Mike Ashley and offered their support to the workforce.

Demonstrators carried cards spelling out ‘Wspieramy was‘ - Polish for ‘we support you’ - aimed at the vast majority of the predominantly Polish workforce.

It is estimated that just 300 of 5,000 staff have contracts with the company, while the remainder are employed on a zero hours basis.

Activists handed out leaflets inviting them to join and offering them free ESOL courses to improve their English.

Colin Hampton, secretary of UNITE Community Branch at Chesterfield, attended the meeting as a member of Share Action, who have bought shares in the company.

He said: My first question related to the annual report.

“They claim their investment in the workforce is integral to Sports Direct.

“I pointed out the reputation that Sports Direct was receiving for poor working conditions at Shirebrook should be of concern to shareholders and to the wider public.”

Last year the Chad uncovered that workers found not sticking to a policy of ‘six strikes and you are out’ faced the sack.

We were told that workers are handed strikes for minor misdemeanours, such as taking too long when going to the toilet, and even taking days off sick.

Colin Hampton said he had raised the issue at the AGM and added: “They said the six strikes policy operated by the agencies was reasonable.

“They said the bad publicity is a media driven attempt to sully the firm’s name.

“I think they are in denial. They just say there are no problems and they are acting within the law.”

Union leaders and politicians demanded answers from Sports Direct over the way it treated its staff, after a woman gave birth in the toilets of its warehouse on New Year’s Day 2014.

And Chad exclusively reported how one worker collapsed on site with a blood clot on his brain.

We reported that 52-year-old Kirkby worker Guntars Zarins collapsed during a shift at Sports Direct after complaining of feeling ill.

He had felt unwell in the days up to his collapse, but feared he could lose his job if he took a day off.

Colin Hampton added “If the firm is happy with its working conditions they would only be too glad to sit down with the union.

“They said they would discuss concerns with the workers themselves .

“But with a worker who is threatened with six strikes and you are out with the fear of dismissal hanging over them, I feel it is an unfair relationship.

“Unless they start to address the image of the company because of its working practices this would hinder the firm’s progress in terms of investors and the workers themselves.

“It was like being in a meeting of the North Korean Government.

“They do not accept there are any problems - they are in denial.

“They think they can deal with the problems by ignoring them and closing them down but this is not going away.”

Ashfield MP Gloria De Piero said: “More and more people across Ashfield are reliant on zero hours contracts and I know lots of local residents work at Sports Direct where the practice is widespread.

“The explosion of these contracts mean that people don’t have the security of knowing how much money they are going to be bringing home week to week, which makes it impossible to budget or plan basic things like childcare.

“In the past I’ve repeatedly raised a number of concerns about working conditions and practices at Sports Direct with founder and owner, Mike Ashley, who so far has never even had the courtesy of replying – even when in one instance it involved the horrific case of Kirkby man, Guntars Zarins, who collapsed with a blood clot while working his shift at the warehouse because he was too scared to phone in sick for fear of losing his job. All his daughter Liga wanted was a meeting in order to get some answers. It’s just plain wrong.”

Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner said: “It is imperative that the union gains recognition from Ashley in order to stop this exploitation from taking place.

“He is one of the richest men in Britain and he made that money out of the efforts of his employees by paying them terrible wages.

“People know the way to get rid of zero hours contracts is to join the union.

“When I worked in the pits in the 1940s we had Polish and Lithuanian miners who were displaced persons but they were paid the same as us because they were members of the National Union of Mineworkers.”

In July 2015 Sports Direct released its full year results and announced its pre-tax profit had risen to more than £300m.

The company also addressed questions about employee rights.

In a statement then, Chairman Keith Hellawell said: “Much of the comment regarding the group’s use of zero hour contracts has been unfounded and inaccurate.

“We comply fully with all legal requirements which relate to casual workers, including sick pay, holiday pay, and freedom to gain other employment.

“Casual workers also participate in general incentive schemes.”

Sports Direct had not responded to our request for a comment on Wednesday afternoon.