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Damning report reveals ‘disturbing’ working practices at Sports Direct

Serious health and safety breaches at high street retailer Sports Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, led to a large number of injuries and repeated ambulance calls, a report by the House of Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee has revealed.

Damning report reveals ‘disturbing’ working practices at Sports Direct
©Matthew Taylor/REX/Shutterstock

Citing evidence obtained by a freedom of information (FOI) request by the trade union Unite to Bolsover District Council, the report – Employment practices at Sports Direct – says that a finger amputation, fractured neck, crushed hand, and wrist, back and head injuries were just some of 115 incidents at the warehouse between 1 January 2013 and 19 April 2016. Seventy-nine of them resulted in staff being absent from work for more than seven days. 

Sports Direct is the largest sporting retailer in the UK, with around 465 stores. BIS’s inquiry into the company’s working practices and business model began as a result of media coverage of treatment of its workers. 
It said its findings of worker mistreatment, including staff not being paid the minimum wage and being punished for taking breaks to drink water and for taking sick leave, were “extremely disturbing”. The committee called for Mike Ashley, the company’s deputy executive chairman, founder and majority shareholder, to be held accountable for the poor working practices.     
“The evidence we heard points to a business whose working practices are closer to that of a Victorian workhouse than that of a modern, reputable High Street retailer,” said Iain Wright MP, chair of the BIS committee. “For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management of Sports Direct and Mike Ashley, as the face of Sports Direct, must be held accountable for these failings.”
During this three-year period there were 80 accidents reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations for the Shirebrook warehouse, Unite’s assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, told the BIS committee. Turner said the problem was due to a crossover in the reporting processes, enforcement and inspection between the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the local authority. 
“You get very few inspections, and this is more about cuts to local services and the way in which the environmental health services are responsible for warehouses, as opposed to the [HSE], so something that we may want to look at would be a closer liaison between the [HSE] and its resources and the environmental health officers in warehouse operations,” Turner said. 
In response to this, Bolsover District Council’s chief executive and partnership manager, Pam Brown, said: “The council, from an environmental health perspective and under health and safety legislation, would be involved regarding the number of RIDDOR cases across the district of Bolsover and have shared information to date via the freedom of information requests. This would mean liaison with the HSE in terms of reporting.”
The committee said Brown’s response was “inadequate” because she did not comment on the “high number of reported RIDDOR cases”, nor did she “give any reassurances about the preventative steps that Bolsover District Council is taking to reduce the number of these cases”, it said. 
Unite also found that paramedics were called to the 800,000 sq ft warehouse 110 times during 1 January 2013 and 19 April 2016. Fifty of these cases were classified as “life-threatening” and included incidents such as chest pains, breathing problems, convulsions, fitting and strokes. Five calls were from women suffering pregnancy difficulties, including one woman who gave birth in the warehouse toilets because she was scared to take time off in case she lost her job.
In their report, MPs concluded that the number of RIDDOR cases and ambulance visits to Shirebrook were “concerning” and urged Ashley to review the warehouse’s safety procedures and to report back with his findings. They also advised Bolsover District Council and the HSE to “take a more active role in overseeing that health and safety provisions are being correctly adhered to”. 
Wright said: “It seems incredible that Mike Ashley, who visits the Shirebrook warehouse at least once a week, was unaware of these appalling practices. This suggests Mr Ashley was turning a blind eye to conditions at Sports Direct in the interests of maximising profits for that there are serious corporate governance failings which left him out of the loop in spite of all the evidence.
“The business model operated by Sports Direct, both at the Shirebrook warehouse and in the shops across the country, involves treating workers as commodities rather than human beings. Low cost products for customers and profits for shareholders come at the cost of maintaining contractual terms and working conditions which fall way below acceptable standards in a modern, civilised economy. This model has proved successful for Mr Ashley and there is a risk this will become much more the norm in Britain.”
Ashley said he will set out steps for Sports Direct to stop these practices recurring. Unite has called for the company to replace temporary contracts with more secure employment to prove it is serious about improving working conditions. 
IOSH has called for improved corporate transparency following the publication of the report. 
Shelley Frost, executive director of policy of the institution, said: “We believe forward-thinking organisations are led by directors who provide leadership and direction of effective occupational safety and health, and deliver a culture for protecting lives and improving reputation, resilience and results. 
“Clearly this has not been the case at Sports Direct, and we hope the company and its senior leaders now have a greater appreciation for the value of ensuring good occupational safety and health throughout its operations.”


Keeley Downey was the former assistant editor of IOSH Magazine. Previously she was editor of Biofuels International, Bioenergy Insight and Tank Cleaning Magazine


  • It look at this situation and

    Permalink Submitted by Steve Plant 402260 on 27 July 2016 - 01:26 pm

    It look at this situation and wonder where are those with the power to actually work towards putting a stop to these practices . What I appear to be seeing is a complete abrogation of responsibilities. I despair at the weak response from politicians, the disgraceful lack of action by Bolsover local authority and even to some extent the relatively polite terms used by IOSH. I have seen no formal condemnation from the CBI or indeed any of the many bodies who could actually assist in shaping public opinion on this gutter level business practice. I hold a position in senior management hence have a committed interest and belief in the importance of business success but I consider this organisation to be a disgrace. I can only imagine the uproar and indignation which would be generated if similar levels of disregard had been shown to those holding position and high status within our society.

  • I am in my nineties and

    Permalink Submitted by Jack Edwards on 27 July 2016 - 01:53 pm

    I am in my nineties and served in Occupational health and safety for most of my life. I saw conditions like this pre-war and after service I entered industry and witnessed similar incidents throughout my working life. Many large industries are still guilty of similar behaviour.
    I hope Theresa May is sincere when she says she is going to tackle these problems.17

  • Sports Direct are a huge

    Permalink Submitted by Hugh Harrison on 27 July 2016 - 01:54 pm

    Sports Direct are a huge warehousing and distribution company with hundreds of retail outlets across the country. Surely they had a Health, Safety and Welfare department. If not why not???? If so what where the professional safety advisers doing to allow poor/bad practices to continue?

    Could iosh not speak to these safety professionals as they must be members; and advise them in some way or other?

    • Dont blame the in house H&S

      Permalink Submitted by helen on 27 July 2016 - 09:52 pm

      Dont blame the in house H&S team. I bet they faced a brick wall from senior management and I would guess there was significant turnover there.

  • There approach to fle4xible

    Permalink Submitted by alison hodgson on 27 July 2016 - 03:09 pm

    There approach to fle4xible working hours and women coming back from maternity is appalling. They are ignored when asking for set days to enable them to sort out child care. Working for a good company I believed that employees rights had long moved on from the days of punishing female employees for having a baby. Its good to see that pressure is being placed on this man to being his business in line with acceptable contractual conditions.

  • Its quite amazing that Mr

    Permalink Submitted by Vincent Butler CMIOSH; MCIPD on 27 July 2016 - 08:52 pm

    Its quite amazing that Mr Ashley is enriching himself fabulously along with his executives and shareholders at the taxpayers expense.
    Giving staff and agency labour dreadful wages, terms, conditions, health, safety and welfare forces many to claim ‘in-work’ benefits.
    If he paid them a living wage then the need for tax payer funded ‘in-work’ benefits would reduce.
    But why would Mr Ashley pay a living wage when he can keep much more profit for himself and shareholder dividends to become even richer.
    Corporate lobbyists and lawyers, big corporations and the resulting ‘political capture’ will gradually erode further worker rights, H&S legislation and enforcement so Mr Ashley’s model is becoming the norm for millions of working people.
    Theresa May talks the talk – but I’d wager anyone she will never walk to walk. The situation for working people will get worse and worse.
    The transfer of wealth from the 99.9% to the 0.1% will speed up even faster and most don’t even realise its happening.
    Please look up digital madia and YouTube and follow:
    Professor Steve Keen
    Professor Michael Hudson
    Professor Richard D Wolff
    Professor William Black
    Professor Andrew Sayer
    Not directly H&S but their written and visual material will give an excellent perspective on how the Mr Ashleys & Sir Phillip Greens & the Banksters of the world get away with what they do – and le ave the bill to the taxpayer. Profits remain private and losses are made public.
    Happy watching and reading.


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