Belfast Telegraph

Sports Direct due to start work on Belfast city store

Bu John Mulgrew

Work is finally due to start on a new Sports Direct store in Belfast city centre, almost a year after boss Mike Ashley bought a major retail site here.

The Newcastle United and Sports Direct owner has bought Donegall Arcade in the heart of the city, and is set to open his first city centre branch of Sports Direct.

In November, the Belfast Telegraph revealed the controversial businessman was in the process of buying the site.

Plans have been submitted to turn the former Currys store into a Sports Direct, creating around two dozen jobs.

It is understood rival retailer Lifestyle Sports had been due to take over the Currys store before the sale of the building.

It is Mr Ashley's first major property deal in Northern Ireland, though last month it emerged he was on course to take over Irish discount department store Heatons, which has 10 stores across the region.

Donegall Arcade had once operated under Peter Dolan's Jermon Developments, which purchased the site for £26m in early 2005 and announced plans for its redevelopment.

Under-fire boss Mike Ashley is bracing himself for a showdown with shareholders and unions tomorrow as he prepares to throw open the retailer's factory doors to the public in a bid to address concerns over corporate governance and working practices.

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

Conditions at Sports Direct's Shirebrook warehouse have come into sharp focus after Mr Ashley was grilled by MPs in the wake of a newspaper investigation which revealed that hundreds of staff were being paid below the national minimum wage.

Mr 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.

However, the tales of woe deepened when Unite the union made clear in its submission to the 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 and other female staff making claims of sexual harassment.

Mr Ashley said he had discovered "issues" at the retailer as part of an internal review into working practices. The retailer said an investigation spearheaded by Sports Direct's lawyers, RPC, is due to be published this week.

In addition, Mr Ashley has announced he will hold an open day on the day of the AGM.

Belfast Telegraph