Union leaders and politicians are demanding answers from Sports Direct over the way it treats its staff, after a woman gave birth in the toilets of its warehouse on New Year’s Day.
MPs and union leaders have raised concerns about health and safety practices at the Shirebrook-based company, owned by billionaire businessman and Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley.
Laurence Platt, from the Unite union, said: “As a union activist, I would want to see any employer like Sports Direct being a real success, but right at the heart of that is the way it treats its workers.”
He said that the birth of a child in these circumstances raised questions about health and safety policy in relation to pregnant women in the workplace, adding: “The management stance of no comment to the press and instructing staff not to speak to anyone about it is really not helpful.”
Under health and safety legislation, once an employee makes her employer aware that she is pregnant, the employer has a duty to immediately take into account any risks identified in their workplace risk assessment.
If that risk cannot be avoided, the company has a legal duty to alter the employee’s hours or working conditions to reduce the risk, offer the employee alternative work which is more suitable to her needs, or suspend the worker on full pay until a time that it is safe for her to return to work.
It is not known whether the woman had notified Sports Direct management of her pregnancy, or if any appropriate action was taken by the firm.
Political leaders have also criticised the company for its employment track record.
Mansfield MP Sir Alan Meale said: “I have spoken to people who work there and I know that staff are in fear for their jobs on a daily basis.
“Mike Ashley is making hundreds of millions of pounds and he’s allowing people to work in these appalling conditions.
“In my opinion, Sports Direct need to either accept the working environment in this country or get out of the market.”
Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner told Chad that unions need to be allowed into Sports Direct and called for all employees to be on staff, and not employed through employment agencies.
He said: “This is a stranglehold and it needs to end. There should be democracy for the people who work at Sports Direct, because in my mind Mike Ashley is nothing more than an old-fashioned type factory owner.
“What was this woman doing there while she was pregnant?
“Will she be given maternity leave?
“I don’t know because nobody at Sports Direct will talk to me.
“I have written to Mike Ashley on many occasions and he doesn’t even acknowledge the letters.
“He has to tolerate some unions because all of his players at Newcastle are members of the Professional Footballers’ Association, which is a union, so why can’t we have a union at Sports Direct?”
Meanwhile, Ashfield MP Gloria De Piero is also asking constituents to come forward and speak in confidence.
She said; “I know some of my constituents work at the site and they shouldn’t be afraid to get in touch if there are any issues of concern. If anyone would like to speak to my office I promise it will be treated in the strictest of confidence.”
Derbyshire police confirmed that they have now questioned the woman who gave birth to a baby boy on 1st January over allegations of neglect.
A spokesman said that the 28-year-old, whose identity has not been revealed, has not been charged and has been released on police bail, while the condition of the child can no longer be reported for legal reasons.
The baby was initially taken to King’s Mill Hospital before being transferred to a special neo-natal unit at Leicester Royal infirmary.
Following the shock birth, Sports Direct staff have approached Chad to describe working conditions, describing how the company operates a strike system - dismissing employees if they are given six strikes for lateness, absence and an array of infringements over a six-month turnover.
Sources also described turnover at the site as massive, and claimed that the company has contacted all employees and warned them not to speak to the press.
Chad spoke to a number of employees at the Sports Direct warehouse and agreed to keep their identities secret to protect them from potential repercussions.
One worker told Chad: “It’s like in the olden days. You get searched every day - it takes hours to get off site at the end of a shift because everyone is searched and we don’t get paid for that.
“We also don’t get weekends off - it’s just a rolling rota and you are expected to work when they want you there.”
Another worker said: “They operate a strike system and if you get six you are out the door.
“It can be for all sorts of reasons, like being late or not turning up.
“They don’t let people talk to each other.”
Another former employee added: “It is a horrible place to work. It is the first and only job I have ever walked out half way through a shift.”
On Monday it emerged that Sports Direct had also bought a stake in department store chain Debenhams, after purchasing 56.8 million (4.6 per cent) of the retailer’s shares.
Despite repeated requests from Chad to Sports Direct for comment, the company is still refusing to issue any statement.
Of the 5,000 people who work at the Shirebrook site, it is understood that all but a few hundred are employed on either casual or zero-hour contracts - and supplied by recruitment firms Blue Arrow and Best Connection.
Best Connection refused to comment when approached by Chad, while Blue Arrow stated that the woman who gave birth did not work for them and declined further comment.
PICTURED: From top, the Sports Direct site in Shirebrook, Mansfield MP Sir Alan Meale, Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner and Ashfield MP Gloria De Piero.