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MPs demand answers from Mike Ashley and Tim Martin over coronavirus advice

The owners of Sports Direct and Wetherspoons have faced criticism for either telling staff to go to work, or refusing to pay workers for now.


Boris Johnson and Tim Martin (Henry Nicholls/PA)

Boris Johnson and Tim Martin (Henry Nicholls/PA)

Boris Johnson and Tim Martin (Henry Nicholls/PA)

Sports Direct and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley and Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin must explain to Parliament how they will be protecting staff, by the end of the week, the chairman of the Business Select Committee has said.

Rachel Reeves, who chairs the committee, said it is “crucial that companies such as JD Wetherspoons and Sports Direct do all they can to ensure their workers are properly protected and get the pay to which they are entitled”.

The move comes as Mr Ashley’s Frasers Group wrote to Cabinet minister Michael Gove in an attempt to get the Government to agree with its position.

Both Frasers Group and Wetherspoons have faced heavy criticism over their handling of staff welfare, with conflicting messages over pay and working hours.

Some Wetherspoons have been targeted with graffiti (Adam Davy/PA)

The Frasers Group has been attacked for telling workers at Sports Direct they must still turn up to stores, despite a Government shutdown.

Staff at his Jack Wills chain were also in work on Tuesday.

The issue was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the company should “obey the rules” or “expect the consequences”.

On Wednesday, Frasers Group finance chief Chris Wootton wrote to Mr Gove, saying the company “emphatically do care about our staff”.

It goes on to call for the Government to “agree” that Mr Ashley’s business was “proper that we asked for the Government’s guidance in advance on Monday as to whether Sports Direct and Evans Cycles stores should continue to operate, given the emphasis the Government has placed on the nation continuing to exercise daily during the Covid 19 Emergency/lockdown?”

The letter also suggests the company would be within its rights to open its Evans Cycles chain during the lockdown. But bosses added they had no plans to reopen currently.

Mr Wootton added: “We wish to make absolutely clear that as a business, keeping open any of our stores is completely uncommercial for us at this time.”

He also offered help for the NHS, and said: “The most immediate opportunity for this may be afforded by our fleet of lorries, that can travel all around the country and help where possible, delivering supplies etc.

“Please let me know who we could speak to further about this.”

At Wetherspoons, Mr Martin  wrote to workers telling them they will no longer be paid, saying he would only start payments again once the Government’s scheme to cover 80% of wages is in place.

He later performed a U-turn.

In the letter to the pubs’ chief, Ms Reeves asks for “detailed information about the measures that Wetherspoons is taking to support its employees during the current coronavirus crisis”.

She added: “This is a national emergency, and governments, citizens and businesses are taking unprecedented measures to protect lives and livelihoods.

“I was therefore disappointed to read that you have not indicated whether you intend to cover the wages of your staff until Government support comes through.

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley has appeared in front of MPs before, answering questions about how he operates (PA)

“This is despite other companies in your industry guaranteeing that they will pay their staff for at least eight weeks.

“Furthermore, you also seem to have suggested that when the Government do pay 80% of your staff’s wages, you might not pay the other 20%.

“Finally, I am deeply concerned that while you encourage your workforce to consider working for supermarkets, you note that if they do, you will give them ‘first preference’ if they ‘want to come back’.”

Questions include:

– How many of your staff will be furloughed?
– Will you pay your staff’s wages up until the Government’s money comes through?
– Will you pay the remaining 20% of your staff’s wages when Government support begins?
– How you will pay and treat staff that you employ who are on zero-hour contracts?
– Will your staff have to reapply for their jobs when the present crisis is over?

The actions of Frasers Group boss Mr Ashley were raised in Parliament by Newcastle upon Tyne Central MP Chi Onwurah.

She said: “Not all businesses are doing the right thing and I am particularly thinking of Mike Ashley forcing workers into empty Sports Direct shops.”

Mr Johnson said: “The instruction to the gentleman in question, and indeed every business, is to follow what the Government has said, to obey the rules or to expect the consequences.

“That is the best way to look after not just their employees but their businesses as well.”

In the letter to Mr Ashley by the select committee, Ms Reeves said: “I am writing to ask for detailed information about the measures that Sports Direct, House of Fraser and Newcastle United Football Club are taking to support their employees during the current coronavirus crisis.”

Questions included:

– (What is) the proportion of staff designated as “furloughed workers” on full-time, part-time and zero-hours contracts?
– The number of staff who will be made redundant.
– Confirmation that Sports Direct, House of Fraser and Newcastle United will continue to pay the wages of staff in full until the funding from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme becomes available.
– Whether any extra staff taken on for deliveries will be paid the National Living Wage.

Both letters are signed: “Given the gravity of the situation, I would appreciate a reply by Friday 27 March.”

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