Martin Flanagan: Mike Ashley becomes a bit more touchy-feely

In a long statement yesterday, Sports Direct rejected the worst of the allegations as categorically untrue. Picture: PA
In a long statement yesterday, Sports Direct rejected the worst of the allegations as categorically untrue. Picture: PA
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ONE suspects that Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley regards his remarkably thick skin as a badge of honour.

So it is noteworthy that he is to review all agency worker terms and conditions at the sportswear retailer after a barrage of media criticism.

That included an undercover newspaper investigation amid criticism some workers at its Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire are on controversial zero hours contracts, allegations that they are harangued over the Tannoy for perceived under-performance, are subject to random body searches on leaving the warehouse, and to “naming and shaming” via a league table identifying individuals by name.

In a long statement yesterday, Sports Direct rejected the worst of the allegations as categorically untrue. This is a welcome advance for a company with an often monolithic, secretive image.

However, Ashley’s problem is that, while methodically denying the worst of the allegations in the statement, the company’s accompanying admissions of what it does do suggest a vaguely Orwellian atmosphere pervades the warehouse where some 4,300 agency workers are employed.

So, while there is no “naming and shaming” in a public, “the company uses an anonymous ranking system to monitor performance. An individual’s unique number (known only to the agencies, the company and the worker) benchmarks staff agains the anonymised data.”

Nothing remotely illegal, but it feels a little creepy just the same. Sports Direct also said: “All employees, agency workers and visitors, including executive management and board members, are subject to random searches on leaving the Shirebrook warehouse.”

Again, Sports Direct is hardly alone in needing to be alert to possible theft from warehouse operations. But it probably really does come down to how “random” is random, and how much of an individual employee’s personal as opposed to work time is taken up in the process.

Commonsense and sensitivity are needed in such an area. It is the way and frequency with which something is done, not just what is done, that is relevant here.

It has taken time, but Ashley and Sports Direct have obviously decided the firm’s image was becoming a threat to its main areas of success: making a lot of money.