Belfast Telegraph

Sports Direct axing zero-hours work and 'Victorian' conditions

By Ravender Sembhy

Retailer Sports Direct, which has eight stores in Northern Ireland and is soon to open another, has said it will offer casual retail staff guaranteed hours instead of zero-hours contracts.

And trade union Unite, which represents Sports Direct employees in the UK, said it would continue to work with management as the company expands in Northern Ireland.

Work is due to start soon on a new Sports Direct in Belfast city centre, almost a year after the company bought Donegall Arcade, where the new store will be located.

A report carried out by professional services firm RPC found "serious shortcomings" at the company's warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, which Sports Direct's board "deeply regrets and apologises for".

The retailer will now offer its directly-employed casual employees the option of either a zero-hours contract or a permanent contract with at least 12 guaranteed hours a week.

It is understood that hundreds of staff in Northern Ireland will benefit from the company's commitment.

Sports Direct will also suspend its controversial 'six strikes and you're out' disciplinary procedure and has pledged to pay warehouse staff above the National Minimum Wage.

Company owner Mike Ashley told MPs from the Business Select Committee in June that staff were not paid during security searches at the end of their shift, meaning they took home less than the minimum amount required by law.

The report said Mr Ashley "takes ultimate responsibility for any aspects of the working practices that were unsatisfactory".

The billionaire, who also owns Newcastle United FC, has faced increasing pressure from shareholder groups in the run-up to today's annual general meeting, with calls to overhaul its board of directors and launch an immediate independent review into working conditions at its factories.

The company has faced a string of allegations, with the Unite union making clear in its submission to the Business Select Committee that staff were subject to "Victorian" working practices and lived in constant fear of losing their job or facing disciplinary action for "excessive" talking or spending too long in the toilet.

The union said workers had likened conditions to a "gulag" or "labour camp", with one woman giving birth in the toilet and other female staff making claims of sexual harassment.

Jackie Pollock, Ireland deputy regional secretary for Unite, said the union welcomed Sports Direct's announcement.

"They have committed themselves to real change, ending labour abuses and becoming an exemplary employer," he added.

"As Sports Direct expand their outlets across Northern Ireland, Unite will seek to work constructively with management to ensure it stays true to its promise to restore dignity and respect to its workers."

Mr Pollock said its members "will be heartened by the board's recognition of the seriousness of the issues we have highlighted over the past months".

"Despite the welcome and significant progressive commitments in the report, such as the ending of zero hour contracts and the harsh 'six strikes and you're out' disciplinary regime, Unite will be demanding that management go further and faster across a range of practices when we engage with the company," he added.

Belfast Telegraph