After months of will he, won’t he, retail tycoon Mike Ashley finally attended his hearing with the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to defend his Shirebrook warehouse earlier today.
The Sports Direct boss declared that he had “nothing to hide” about his warehouse’s working practices and would be “open and honest” at every stage of the process.
Beginning the frosty affair, Committee Chairman Iain Wright attempted to break the ice by questioning whether Ashley’s monochrome tie was a Newcastle United tie. Ashley struggled to hide his contempt.
The key areas covered in the meeting included overall working conditions, the influence of trade unions, Ashley’s ability as boss, his plans to purchase BHS and the business’s next move.
Before the meeting, Ashley admitted that he was paying staff below the minimum wage and told MPs that he discovered some “issues” with working practices as part of an internal review.
Sitting alongside press relations officer Keith Bishop, Ashley was asked whether employees were paid less than the minimum wage, to which he responded: “On that specific point, for that specific bit of time, yes”.
When asked about zero-hour contracts Ashley claimed that his review had not yet covered that side of the business. However, he agreed that some staff should be transferred to full-time contracts.
The boss also acknowledged that 20% full time and 80% part-time employees is the wrong balance.
Nonetheless, Ashley mentioned that “some of our top people have come from zero-hour contracts”.
Moreover, a number of health and safety concerns were voiced at the Derbyshire warehouse, with a reported 110 ambulances called to the depot between 1 January and 19 April this year. Ashley regarded this as excessive.
“Let us assume that every single call-out was needed. How are people getting injured at Sports Direct? You cannot have that number of serious incidents – it is impossible.
“I was told that we were over-quick to pick up the phone for the ambulance service.”
Further, when Ashley was made aware of sexual harassment claims from female employees, Ashley labelled the managers as “sexual predators” who need to be “dealt with”.
“It 100% should not be going on. They’re repugnant, they’re disgusting.”
When it came to trade union involvement, Ashley noted that he had little to do with them. He stated that he only spoke to the unions when they question him at the company’s yearly Annual General Meeting.
Ashley boldly stated that he is in a position to do a much better job at looking after workers than union Unite. When asked whether his employees shared this view he answered with “I would hope so”.
“I’m not Father Christmas – I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful”, but could give workers more than the union.
Ashley as boss
On reflection of all the issues discussed, Ashley stated to the committee that the business has “definitely outgrown me”.
“Some things have come as a bit of an unpleasant surprise”. It appears that Ashley may not have been as in control of the warehouse as he thought.
Ashley defended his use of employment agencies stating that it was “physically impossible” to grow Sports Direct as fast without them. He noted that he chose Best Connection and Transline because they were “experts in people”.
The British billionaire agreed that it may be better for a third party to carry out a review of the business. “I can agree that in some ways I am not the right person because I am not an expert on every area of employment, obviously”. Ashley, therefore, agreed to an independent review of his company’s corporate governance structure.
The retail tycoon made a conclusive statement “I’ve discovered some issues and I’ve hopefully addressed some of those issues. Bottlenecks at security are the main issue”.
In regards to the demise of BHS, Ashley remained confident that he would have been the right candidate to recover the business.
“100% I wanted to buy BHS. It’s not a logical fit with Sports Direct because of the extreme value that Sports Direct is known for.
“I’m not a saint, but you could have made a success of that business” Ashley added.
The retail boss did, however, refuse to discuss the issue further when questioned about Sir Philip Green’s involvement in the demise of the chain.
The Sports Direct owner has vowed to implement a number of changes in the next 90 days and promised to inform MPs if the time frame needs to be extended.
Ashley and Unite also revealed that HMRC is investigating the firm over wages and back pay for staff who were payed below the national living wage.