More than three years have passed since the BBC broadcast an investigation into the work practices of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct company in the Far East. Amongst other things, the programme showed employees in a factory in Laos working in especially oppressive conditions, earning 1 pound (English) per day for a 12-hour shift. In sapping heat, the employees were often folding and bagging clothes in areas with no air-conditioning. There was one air-conditioner in the building but it was being used to cool down the sewing machine rather than the workers. A telling image.
Even if it’s all too typical to hear these types of stories in the clothing business (witness Penneys’ link to the building collapse in Bangladesh which killed hundreds earlier this week), the Sports Direct case was especially disturbing. Firstly, the owner of the factory openly admitted to reporters that the facility did not conform to the internationally-accepted SA8000 standard. That is a regulation which guarantees no child labour is used on the premises, and that workers are paid properly and not exploited. In effect, it is an attempt to ensure that people sewing shirts and boots in third world countries for pittances are given something approaching their basic human rights.
Today, Sports Direct has a big blurb on its website proclaiming its interest in fair and ethical trade but back then its only response to the documentary was to declare it “inaccurate and misleading”. Perhaps Sports Direct changed their ways following the BBC’s embarrassing look into their affairs. Maybe they stopped using the factory involved, especially as the cameras caught workers putting on the “70 per cent off” stickers before the goods had even left the production line, proving that not all reductions in shops are what they seem to be.
Whatever happened, we do know that the investigation by “Inside Out: North East and Cumbria” made a lot of Newcastle fans uneasy about the fact their club owner was involved in such an unseemly and seedy business.
“Mike Ashley’s business methods outside of Newcastle United bring into question his ownership of the club,” wrote one irate Newcastle fan. “Sports Direct are believed to have employed labour that does not match international regulations or ethical standards. Whereas companies such as Nike list their suppliers publicly, Sports Direct do not. The reasons why are clear, those employed by Sports Direct have no respect for the international law that ensures minimum standards on labour, wages and conditions are met. He (Ashley) was able to personally make just short of £1 billion in one day when he floated Sports Direct, of which we are convinced none made its way back to his workers in Laos.”
All of this matters only because the GAA and GPA recently got into bed with Sports Direct via the launch of the website Gaelicboots.com.
“I welcome this joint initiative which is a further indication of the ongoing co-operation between the GAA and the GPA,” said GAA President Liam Ó Néill. “In addition to establishing another joint venture between the two organisations gaelicboots.com will also provide players of all ages and grades with access to the best playing equipment. It will also see tangible benefits in the area of player welfare.”
Purporting to be a vehicle that will allow GAA players big and small to access cheaper footwear, the company is headquartered out of Waterford. That’s all well and good. Except, John Fogarty reported in The Examiner recently that “the directors named in company registration documents are David Forsey, chief executive of Sports Direct International PLC, and Barry Leach, head of brands division at the retailer.”
Most of the ensuing brouhaha surrounding the English company’s foray into Irish affairs has centred around its potential negative impact on shoe stores and sports shops. Jarlath Burns first raised this issue on Twitter and Mayo’s Donal Vaughan, who manages shoe shops in Ballinrobe, weighed in with some public comments of his own last week. Both mentioned how any perceived savings customers will make when they buy online are false economies. For example, where will Sports Direct be when the local club needs to tap somebody up for a bit of sponsorship, the kind local shops have always provided so generously?
If that’s a good question, there’s something else to consider too. Is this the type of corporation that the GAA and GPA want to be partnering up with? Just recently it emerged that a share issue was going to yield tens of thousands of pounds to many Sports Direct employees across Britain. A genuinely feel-good story in a tough economic climate, there was one minor problem. This windfall concerned a tiny minority of workers. Many of those who have worked for Ashley’s outfit testify that the conditions were rough (no toilet breaks during a five-hour shift, no training etc). Sports Direct is a big name and getting bigger but they aren’t known for how well they treat workers.
Sifting through the Sports Direct manifesto, they do make a point of mentioning their charitable donations to sport. Indeed, they list the contributions they have made to the different codes through the various brands they own. Slazenger gave equipment worth £250,000 to a programme designed to bring through the next generation of British cricketers. Dunlop gave (pounds)15000 to a similar golf scheme while Everlast donated $20,000 to the Golden Gloves in New York, and another $14,000 to trainer Teddy Atlas’s foundation. All worthy initiatives.
It may seem churlish to slam anybody who gives stuff for free with the intent of promoting kids playing sport then but there’s something else to ponder here. In the nine weeks up to March 31st, Sports Direct sales rose by 14.3pc to £317.4m while gross profits rose 22.7pc to £129m. Those are the type of astronomical numbers that put the company’s charitable impulses in a rather paltry perspective. Gaelicboots.com may save people money in the short run and may make a few bob for the association but ultimately, the GAA could be losing something far more important here.
(first published in the Evening Echo, May 3rd, 2013)