Sports Direct staff facing uncertain future after pressure forces store closures

Workers on zero-hours contracts at Mike Ashley’s chain will reportedly not be paid while stores closed

Thousands of shopworkers are facing an uncertain future after Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct chain bowed to government pressure and closed all its stores.

Ashley’s Frasers Group, which includes Sports Direct, had intended to remain open as other non-essential retailers closed, on the basis that selling sporting and fitness equipment made the company a vital asset as Britons were forced to stay home.

However, Frasers Group was forced to backtrack after the government intervened. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Sports Direct had made the “wrong” call and that its stores should not be open. Management had “got the message”, Gove added.

Despite the U-turn some Sports Direct workers were still told to report to work. In one message sent to staff, the company wrote “we will not open our Sports Direct or Evans Stores to the public” and it carries on “please continue to head into work as we have been instructed last night”.

Salaried Sports Direct staff were asked to do shifts in shuttered shops, organising stock and making sure premises were secure. In a series of conference calls shop managers were told that this was the last guaranteed shift for many workers and April was a “grey” area, as the retailer examined the government support packages available to retailers. The thousands of Sports Direct staff on zero-hours contracts (who are only paid for the hours they work) will be paid for March but won’t be paid while the stores are closed, it is understood.

“I’ve worked half my life for this company and I feel angry and let down,” said one Sports Direct shop worker. “It’s a mess.”

Sports Direct suggested it could reopen in future if “given the go-ahead by the government”. The company said in a statement: “Please note we are contacting them at all levels, including attempting to get confirmation from the prime minister.”

In the email on Monday evening, the chief finance officer, Chris Wootton, had confidently explained to staff why it was so important: “We stock a huge range of sports equipment designed for exercising at home … indeed, home fitness is the number one trending topic on social media after coronavirus itself.

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“Against the backdrop of the closure of gyms, the demand for these types of products has increased exponentially as the population looks to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

But Ashley was accused of putting profits before the wellbeing of his staff with his bid to remain open as other non-food stores closed. Gavin Callaghan, the leader of the Labour-controlled Basildon council in Essex, said local employees of the chain should not go to work. “Mike Ashley is the lowest of the low and he has no place in our borough,” he said in a tweet.

Labour MP Jess Phillips also criticised the appeal to keep stores open, tweeting: “Massive mugs notwithstanding there is nothing people cannot live without in Sports Direct.”

Sports Direct’s attempt to position itself as a vital to the nation’s fitness regimes was also undermined by a report that it was increasing the price of some home exercise equipment by up to 50%. Internal documents seen by the PA news agency showed the price of a 4kg Everlast kettle bell had increased from £9.99 to £14.99, while a 12kg weight was now £39.99, up from £29.99 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dixons Carphone, which unsuccessfully lobbied to be included on the government’s list of “essential” retailers, also asked hundreds of staff to turn up for shifts on Tuesday. The electricals specialist had hoped to keep just over a third of its 305 Currys PC World open as “contact-free” outlets but all its stores have now closed.

Last week Dixons Carphone also announced it was permanently closing the 531-store Carphone Warehouse chain, with the loss of 2,900 jobs, and one employee accused the company of putting lives at risk by telling staff to go to work at shops even though they are closed to the public.

“It’s wrong to ask people to come in. These are unnecessary journeys they’re asking staff to make,” the long-serving sales worker said. “The company might say it’s voluntary and that any employee who feels uncomfortable does not need to come in, but we feel we have no choice. We feel like we’re being held to ransom for our redundancy. They haven’t said that explicitly, but that’s what it feels like.”

Dixons Carphone said all its UK stores were now closed but that some store colleagues were asked to go in and make sure they were shut safely. “We’re now serving our customers through our online business,” said the company in a statement. “Our contact centres remain open, as we meet the high demand from customers for essential products and technology during this time with colleagues in these locations working from home where possible. We will not ask any colleague to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.”

Contributors

Sarah Butler, Zoe Wood and Simon Murphy

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