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Mike Ashley and Sports Direct: The Future Face of “Workplace UK”?

Finally shamed into appearing before the Business, Innovation and Skills (shome mishtake shurely? What would most MP’s know about any of these things?) Committee, Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley was forced to accept the charges laid at his feet by Unite the Union regarding working practices were true.


The campaign led by UNITE and picked up by the Guardian newspaper is important for a number of reasons. Firstly it puts paid to the lies of the Tories and many Labour MPs that Unions are irrelevant to the needs of the general community (Unions are banned in Ashley’s world, all the pressure came from outside the workplace) and cannot effect change. In addition the campaign gives credence to the truism that together workers can scale the walls of Capitalism and achieve significant push backs against the system even though it is rigged in favour of the bosses. There is a template now for workers to organise even in the era of pre Victorian working environment replete with zero hours contracts, zero holiday or ma (pa) ternity, abuses of health and safety rights let alone pensions or other forms of workplace benefits.

However what the Sports Direct scandal does do is to highlight just how horrible and degrading everyday work is for so many people in our society.

This is just a sliver what Newcastle United owner Ashley was forced to own up to.

+ Workers being forced to stay behind (unpaid) at the end of their shifts in a Derby based Sports Direct Warehouse in order to be searched. This pushed their rate below the national minimum wage which is illegal. It took Ashley six months to even acknowledge that this was even a problem.

+ Working conditions are so dangerous that ambulances had attended the warehouse 110 times including 38 for severe chest pain and in one incident a worker gave birth in a toilet.

+ In a chilling throwback to the industrial revolution factory system where workers were paid in tokens which could only be redeemed in shops run by the owners, staff at Sports Direct were paid through a pre-paid card. Staff are charged £10 to get a card, plus a £10-a-month management fee, 75p to use it at an ATM machine, and 10p when they get a text message confirming they have used it. This is 21st century Britain.

The EU, so beloved of the Extreme Centre capitalist Parties has  no jurisdiction or influence to stop the march of such appalling practices. That’s the truth of it regarding the referendum.  We need a united Socialist Europe, not a Capitalist Club whose crumbs from the table we are expected to be grateful for. 

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this whole sorry mess is that a sense of hopelessness regarding work, and therefore about life prospects is spreading like a fog across our nation.

The Today Programme this morning featured a report from the Tees Valley. In September last year the furnaces at the Redcar Steel Plant were extinguished for good after 98 years. At it’s height Redcar employed thousands of local people as well as spreading ancillary work across the region. The plant provided the steel infrastructure for iconic buildings across the globe including the New York World Trade Centre and the Sydney. In 2015 the new Tory Government rolled over by a de facto acquiescence of steel dumping by China.

The EU also claimed to be powerless. The truth is that they are delighted to have a cheap source of steel as it drives down costs, enhances profit all without having to deal with a pesky workforce.

When Redcar closed 3,000 people were thrown out of well paid and challenging work. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture of men whistling off to the factory; it’s bloody hot and dangerous. But the workers we heard from said they much prefered it to the alternatives on offer. One interviewee had taken a £1,000 a month pay cut to become a bus driver, which he hated. Naturally the answer is to enhance the status of all workers, and value their contribution not based on financial worth but on other more eclectic measures.

Tory Grandee and former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine had been commissioned by Cameron and his odious Business Secretary Sajid Javid to produce a report on the fallout from the closure of Redcar. Unsurprisingly all was well  and the local Labour politicians queued to be patronised and lied to, ” The report shows that London politicians are starting to listen,” said one. ““It’s interesting that Michael said it was an area he didn’t know very well,  (he) just thought we were some kind of suburb of Newcastle, so that’s an improvement.” Wow. Such aspiration. But they do get to sit on the new quango (well remunerated) so they can decide between a kick in the balls  or a punch in the mouth for their residents. That’s true democracy for you.

The sad truth is that de industrialisation means poorer paid work in the retail or services sector. This is turn leads to falling health and a rise in poverty and all the baggage that goes with that.

Notorious new rules have come into effect right across our workplaces including care workers (surely right up there in “value”) not being paid between jobs, once again flouting minimum wages, and school/ home liaison officers (formerly known as Education Welfare Officers or more colloquially “the bunk man”) being put on zero hours contracts. A well known pizza franchise uses undocumented workers from all over who are crammed into Rachman style houses of multiple occupancy and see very little of their wages as they go to cover “costs”.

The burgeoning use of “work experience” for privileged kids gains them a foot up the ladder as they cultivate connections. Access to professions across the spectrum from as journalism to banking and the law are now dished out via a secret code of recognition that is bought via a private education.

Labour’s eagerness to buy into Austerity via endorsing local Government cuts ( John McDonnell: “The situation the councils are now in is if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them any more.)” and it’s support for a European Union that has delivered brutality to workers (Blairite Nick Cohen, “The EU, which boasts that solidarity is its founding principle, is forcing Greece into destitution and chaos”) shows that it has, even under the leadership of the Left, shed any vestiges of standing up for the working class in a meaningful, planned and long term manner.

All Labour is capable of is a short term action and only then when the ground is rock solid as epitomised by their stance on TTIP. Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted when they tabled a motion to amend the Queen’s Speech, but like with the Bedroom Tax they vacillated and only acted out of certainty.  When there is a real battle to be had, such as local government cuts, they are nowhere to be seen.

We need a new Party now more than ever. With the Tories in complete disarray Labour should be romping ahead. But they are not. Whilst it is true that they have a hard core vote which will deliver enough gravy for 250 MPs there is a vacuum on the Left. The election of a Leftish leader with a popular mandate (which he reneged on virtually right away thus promoting cynicism to fester) shows the appetite for Socialism is there. If the Unions could wean themselves off the Westminster/ Brussels prawn sandwiches circuit which act more like crack judging by their addiction, there could be the dawn of a new, vibrant and hopeful kind of politics. We need it and we need it now.



About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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