Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley: ‘You’d be surprised how little I knew of what was going on’

Mike Ashley

The Telegraph reports how in a colourful interview on BBC Breakfast, the founder and deputy chairman of Sports Direct said: “You’d be surprised at how little I knew of what was going on in the warehouse.”

He expressed his determination to fix the problems that have seen the sports retail company hauled up in front of a Parliamentary committee, but blamed “rotten apples” for conditions of which he was unaware.

Pressed on whether things would improve in the warehouses, Mr Ashley said the company had paid out £200m in bonuses over the last five years, and claimed that “the cleaning lady got an £80,000 bonus on top of her normal pay. No one in the UK has done that”.

Mr Ashley said it would take more than a year to fix problems at Sports Direct, which has plunged in value and fallen out of the FTSE 100 amid intense scrutiny of its workplace practices and corporate governance. He defended his use of private planes and helicopters – while his workers were paid less than the minimum wage – by saying: “I don’t get paid a salary, but I do like to go by private plane – it saves a lot of time and is very efficient.”

The interview came after Sports Direct announced that an investigation into its workplace practices and corporate governance would be conducted by an independent party rather than the group’s own legal advisors.

Solicitors RPC, a longstanding partner of Sports Direct, had been slated to oversee the review, but the retailer has announced that the task will now fall to an “independent party”.

Mr Ashley was accused by a committee of MPs earlier this year of turning a blind eye to “appalling” workplace conditions at its giant Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire. The Business, Innovation and Skills committee said Sports Direct had treated staff like “commodities rather than human beings”.

The retailer was criticsed for its “six strikes and you’re out” policy, which saw workers reprimanded if they spent too long in the toilet, took a break for a drink of water or time off to look after sick children. Some warehouse staff were paid below the national minimum wage as result of bottle-necks in staff search queues.

A report by RPC released earlier this month found Sports Direct guilty of “serious shortcomings”, but was greeted with scepticism because of the firm’s close links to Mr Ashley.

In response to the report, Sports Direct promised to abolish the six strikes policy at Shirebrook and to offer directly employed staff on zero-hours contracts at least 12 hours’ work per week. It also announced a follow-up “360-degree, 12-month comprehensive review” into working conditions and corporate governance to be authored by RPC.

However, faced with disquiet from shareholders, Sports Direct will now find an independent investigator.

RPC’s report into working practices was released the day before Sports Direct’s AGM, when 52 per cent of independent investors voted for the company’s chairman, Keith Hellawell, to resign. He was saved by Mr Ashley’s majority shareholding.

On the same day, shares in the retail chain tumbled by almost 9 per cent after it lowered earnings forecasts for the year. The company said it expected underlying earnings to be around £300m this year, compared with a forecast of £309m, and £381m last year.

Sports Direct also announced today that the new position of a worker’s representative on the board will be filled via elections in which “all staff directly engaged or employed by Sports Direct may vote”.

The company’s shares rose 3 per cent to £2.90 in morning trade.