Belfast Telegraph

Sports Direct to have workers' representative at board meetings

Mike Ashley's Sports Direct is to appoint an employees' representative who will attend board meetings following uproar over working conditions at the embattled retailer.

The company said it has opened the application process for the position to all "directly-engaged" workers.

An assessment process will take place to select successful candidates, who will then stand in an election in which around 23,000 staff will be entitled to vote.

The workers' representative will be invited by the board to attend and speak at all scheduled meetings on behalf of the people who work at Sports Direct.

However, the elected post will not involve the representative becoming a director, as the company believes this would "potentially constrain their ability to fulfil the role".

The move comes after a tumultuous 2016 for the retailer.

Billionaire Mr Ashley was hauled before MPs to be grilled over ''Victorian'' working conditions at the firm's warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, and the company hosted a farcical ''open day'' at its headquarters.

Chief executive Dave Forsey then quit the group, only to be replaced by Mr Ashley.

Investors and MPs have urged the tycoon to undertake a radical overhaul of corporate governance at Sports Direct and Thursday's move will be seen as a step in that direction.

In a letter to staff, Mr Ashley said: "I have always believed Sports Direct to be a business that was built by the great people who work here. I therefore believe it is important that your voice is heard at the highest level in order to continue to make a positive difference.

"I look forward with immense pride to sitting alongside the UK's first elected workers' representative at future board meetings of Sports Direct International plc."

Appointments as workers' representatives will be for 12-month periods, and the election process will take place annually.

In the first year the representative will be chosen from the retail division, and in the following year from the warehouse or head office, before this cycle is then repeated.

A spokesman for Sports Direct said: "Having explored all options, we believe this is the best way to ensure the workers' representative is free to champion the interests of all staff. We see this as a major step forward in bringing about positive change."

It is expected that the first board meeting to be attended by the workers' representative will take place in spring 2017.

However, the plans were met with scepticism from the Unite union, which warned they risk being little more than a "PR exercise".

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: "We remain deeply sceptical about the process and whether a single unsupported representative will have a meaningful voice on a board which has been severely criticised for poor corporate governance.

"Question marks remain over whether the process is one by selection or election and who will be involved or able to stand. The majority of the shameful practices exposed by Unite involve over 3,000 agency workers at its Shirebrook warehouse.

"We remain to be convinced whether managers or supervisors directly employed by Sports Direct will actively voice the concerns of this sizeable part of the workforce should they be chosen as the worker representative.

"If the worker is hand-picked by Sports Direct, without union support, training and confidence to speak up, then this risks being little more than a PR exercise rather than a serious attempt to right the wrongs of the past."