Church Commissioners take on retail giant Sports Direct amid a string of controversies

23 February 2018

PA

THE Church Commissioners reportedly criticised working practices and conditions at the retailer Sports Direct during a string of controversies about the company in recent years.

The Commissioners, whose £7.9-billion investment fund includes a small stake in Sports Direct, wrote several letters expressing its concerns, the Press Association has reported. In particular, the Commissioners wrote to criticise what it saw as excessive pay handed out to executives at the company, and poor working conditions.

In 2016, both a parliamentary committee and the Unite union condemned the retailer for “Victorian workhouse” practices: one female employee had given birth in a lavatory at the company’s Derbyshire headquarters because she feared being fired if she took time off.

Other employees have told how their pay was docked if they clocked in on a shift one minute late. The firm has also been investigated over whether it paid some staff less than the minimum wage.

Last year, it was revealed that the Revd Karen Bradley, Team Vicar of Holy Trinity, Shirebrook, was among a number of clergy who had been given space in the Sports Direct canteen to act as chaplains for the staff working at the Derbyshire warehouse (News, 7 April 2017).

In 2017, the Commissioners voted against the re-election of both Sports Direct’s chairman, Keith Hellawell, and its chief executive, Mike Ashley.

A spokesman for the Commissioners confirmed that it had engaged with the company via letters, but declined to comment further. But Unite praised the Commissioners for taking on Sports Direct: “All too often, we see shareholders being too passive, but it can have reputational consequences,” the union said.

A spokesman for Sports Direct said that the board was backed by most independent shareholders at its September AGM, “at which many of these historic issues were addressed”. He also accused the Church of England of hypocrisy, noting that the Commissioners’ 2018 policy is not to vote in favour of nomination committees if less than a quarter of the board’s members are women.

“We recently disclosed that women make up 35.1 per cent of our senior executive team, which is ahead of target and compares with the Church of England, where we understand that around ten per cent of bishops are female.”

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