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Cash in the attic

17 June 2016 | Ross Jones

Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Sports Direct, has appeared before a House of Commons select committee to answer questions as to why his company has been paying its employees less than minimum wage.

Ashley, who is worth somewhere in the region of £2.5 billion, has over 400 stores in the UK and employs more than 20,000 people in the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Slovenia.

The press has revealed Sports Direct to be some sort of twilight zone in which employment laws and basic human rights cease to exist. Ashley has been painted as a Dickensian-like workhouse master – exploiting immigrants and the poor for profit and personal gain.

It is claimed that 80 percent of the staff are part-time, that immigrants have been targeted to work in the warehouses as they’re more likely to work for less than minimum wage and less likely to speak out about abhorrent working conditions.

Staff are subjected to full body searches (unpaid of course) after work – to check that they’re not stealing. And they lose quarter of an hour’s pay for every one minute in which they’re late. There have been reports of ambulances being called to his facilities over 100 times, with workers being too scared to take sick leave – and a baby being born in a bathroom.

The next time somebody tells you that immigrants have it easy in this country, tell them about some overworked underpaid, pregnant mother giving birth in the bathroom of a Sports Direct warehouse. A scenario depressing beyond words.

In front of the committee, Ashley played down his responsibility, instead, laying the blame for his company’s hiring practices at the feet of part-time temp agencies and, bizarrely, the internet.

He blamed the rise of the internet (Mike, it’s 20 fu**ing years old!!!) for being “extremely labour intensive” and admitted that his company had “probably become too big for him to run”.

I’m sorry Mike, not good enough. No company swells to such a size that the only remedy left is to exploit underprivileged people. You did it because it was cheap, easy and profitable! You’re the CEO of Sports Direct, not Goldman Sachs.

And what sort of committee do we have if they buy this “you-take-your eye-off-the-company-for-one-second-and-the-next-thing-you-know-immigrants-are-giving-birth-in-bathrooms” bullshit?!

I don’t believe, for a second, that Ashley was unaware of his business’s employment practices. I don’t believe he didn’t know his business was paying sub-minimum wage. I don’t believe he didn’t know that his business was targeting immigrants for cheap labour. I’m sure he knew all of these things. You don’t become a billionaire by not knowing.

In fact, given the revelations, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ashley’s attic was stuffed full of Filipino kids sewing soccer balls in 19 hour shifts – breaks only granted to plaster bleeding fingertips, the cost of plasters deducted from wage packets.

It’s a bad bit of PR for Ashley and Sports Direct. Although, this is a man who’s managed to alienate an entire region of the country after nearly a decade of running Newcastle United into ground.

Still, he’s got wads of cash, a football club and a beautiful Swedish wife…so he’s probably sleeping easy at night. I guess it’s hard to hear children crying over the whirring of sewing machines.