Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley has defended himself in his first TV interview since MPs dubbed his warehouses “Victorian workhouses” in a scathing report into working conditions.
Notably, billionaire Ashley also backtracked on comments made during Sports Direct’s recent AGM about leaving the business after a year if he fails to turn it around.
Embattled chairman Keith Hellawell said he would leave in a year if he failed to win over support of the shareholders and Ashley said he would do the same and said at the time: “In the end, if I keeping failing… maybe it will be best that I go. But please, give me a chance to fix things.”
However, Ashley told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday morning: “A year would be too quick [to turn around Sports Direct]. It is an ongoing process. You get to the top of one mountain and then you see another. It will never stop, it will keep going on long after I’m dead.”
Asked if he knew about the appalling working conditions at the Sports Direct warehouse, Ashley said:
“You’d be surprised how little I knew what was going on and I think that’s really where the failing was. How do I know what a night shift does till 12am till 7 in the morning. I don’t work there on Saturdays and Sundays. There are lots of hours in the week that I’m not there. Remember it’s open 365 days of the year 24 hours a day.”
Workers at Sports Direct’s massive Shirebrook warehouse were found to be being paid less than minimum wage, subject to a punitive “three strikes” policy that could see them punished for taking sick days, and were on uncertain zero-hour contracts. There were also suggestions of permanent contracts exchange for sexual favours and one worker even gave birth in the warehouse toilets.
Ashley said his reaction to this revelation was: “Appalled if I believed them, my instant reaction was ‘no, that sort of thing doesn’t go on at Sports Direct.'”
The billionaire retail tycoon insisted that these were “odd, isolated incidents,” adding “it’s the rotten apple in the barrel.”
This contrasts with the conclusion of Parliament’s Business, Innovation, and Skills committee, which said that: “The business model as operated by Sports Direct, both at the Shirebrook warehouse and in the shops across the country, involves treating workers as commodities rather human beings.”
Ashley added: “What can I say. We definitely had some things we had to fix and hopefully in the 90 days we’ve fixed a lot of those things and, as I said to them at the time, there’ll still be a lot of things that need fixing.”
Sports Direct announced on Wednesday that its “360 review” into working conditions and business practices will now be led by an independent party rather than the company’s own law firm RPC. The change follows “careful consideration to concerns raised by independent shareholders.”
Ashley told the BBC that he could “100%” be challenged by other board members on decisions, saying: “When people say you decide on everything, the reality is I don’t. We have a company that’s very sectionalised and you tend to stick to the sections that you are personally responsible for.”
He also claimed that real changes were taking place in the business despite no change to the board composition. He told the BBC: “I think it is changing because I am coming in now to work very closely with HR and the agencies and things like that… We take this a lot more personally that anybody out there can possibly imagine.”
Asked about the notorious pictures of Ashley unloading wads of £50 notes from his pockets during a warehouse tour for press, Ashley said he is a “PR nightmare,” adding: “I do fly to work by helicopter. It’s a reality. When people say be more real — It’s a reality.”
Ashley said his aim was to create “the culture at Sports Direct where we are one big family. That’s what it was set up as.”
He closed the interview by saying: “I’ve said sorry, I’ve said I’m going to fix it, and I will.”
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