What have trade unions ever done for us? Ask 3000 workers at Sports Direct


The fair relationships that unions foster between workers and employers take time and effort to negotiate, but the results speak for themselves: on average, staff in unionised workplaces enjoy significantly better pay and conditions, as well as a whole host of other benefits. That’s every incentive for people in permanent jobs to join a union or organise themselves under the wing of one.

But what about the 800,000-plus people on zero-hours contracts in the UK today? How can you even begin a dialogue with your employer or agency when you have no guarantee of a job from one day to the next? When you can’t afford to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of losing what little work you have? How can a union represent workers who are here today and gone tomorrow?

Unite union wins Sports Direct u-turn

Some great news this month: it can be done! Since first highlighting shocking ‘Victorian’ working practices and a culture of fear at Sports Direct’s Derbyshire warehouse back in February 2015, the Unite union has been waging an energetic campaign to win better contracts and conditions for around 3000 casual agency workers there. This month, Sports Direct bowed to pressure, as TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady explains:

“After months of patient organising, winning of public support and [use of] trade union shareholder power, we got a result: at long last the chance to get agency workers onto permanent contracts. A proper win for workers.”

Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley also yielded to trade union and shareholder pressure following the company's AGM and agreed to an independent review of company employment practices. This should include investigation into an alleged ‘six strikes and you’re out’ disciplinary system which beggars belief: where workers could be penalised for excessive chatting, long toilet breaks and even being off sick, and being named and shamed over a tannoy for not working fast enough.  

“We will organise and we will win”

Unite is following closely on progress here, making sure the promise to end zero-hours contracts in Sports Direct’s stores as well is followed through with real action. Three-quarters of its retail workforce have until now been working without rights to holiday and sick pay, or any guarantee of work or pay from one week to the next.

Does this sound familiar to you? Could it even describe the working conditions of people you know – or even your own? Trade unions are not going to accept this kind of exploitation as the new ‘normal’ and neither should you.

“It’s not over yet. Sports Direct may be in the spotlight now, but they are not the only ones,” continues O’Grady.

“Let me give fair warning to any greedy business that treats its workers like animals – we will shine a light on you. Run a big brand with a dirty little secret? A warehouse of people paid less than the minimum wage? A fleet of couriers who are slaves to an app? Let me put you on notice: there will be no hiding place. We will organise and we will win. Britain’s unions will not rest until every worker gets the fair treatment they deserve.”

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