When I say ‘labour practices’ and ‘fast fashion’, what images does that conjure up in your head? No doubt your mind is transported to The Far East – Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, or perhaps China. You find yourself in a miserable sweatshop, surrounded by tired women, some who look as young as 9 or 10. They’re packed together tightly, no sign of happiness.
Yet a recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, The Secrets of Sports Direct, examined one of the UK’s largest fast fashion retailers and their practices a little closer to home.
In fashion, we are often taught to believe that the phrase ‘Made in the UK’ (or an equivalent Western country) makes a purchase inherently morally good. However, do we always know what is behind that slogan? Sports Direct’s clothes are manufactured in Far Eastern nations in conditions not unlike the above, but the treatment of their UK workers at their packing and shipping plant in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, is a considerably depressing affair as well.
The documentary’s focus was twofold. Initially it looked at how consumers are misled by the retailer, before moving onto the operations at its Shirebrook plant.
Here, workers are subject to an authoritarian management regime not unlike that which would be seen in a Victorian factory. We see workers funnelled through corridors lined with posters promising financial reward and success for those that work within the system – propaganda to attempt to dampen the miserable existence that follows.
Inside, workers shuffle around 1 million square feet of dark, dreary concrete, sandwiched in by shelves and shelves of sweatshop produced goods. The workers are primarily English and Polish, and are ordered around and barked at by superiors for whom the system has clearly won – their humanity is subdued, and they are swept up in Sports Direct’s system.
Tannoy commands fill the warehouses, pushing workers to complete more orders per hour. Meanwhile, the aforementioned managers wander the aisles, ensuring workers are not taking any ‘unexplainable off time’. If you’re caught chatting, you’ll be disciplined. If you spend too long in the toilet, you’ll be disciplined. If you’re caught saying anything out of line – disciplined.
And what is discipline? A system is in place whereby if a worker accrues six ‘strikes’ to their name, they’ll be sacked on the spot. The list of disciplinary offences is as long as it is absurd. In addition, Sports Direct keeps its workers in constant fear of dismissal, by sacking several people a day anyway. People who have a poor ‘pick rate’ (i.e. are slower at filling out orders) are dismissed on the spot, and the threat of said dismissal travels around the factory floor from worker to worker.
Perhaps most disturbing is that strikes can be given for sick days. Even with doctor’s notes as evidence, if you take a sick day, you will be given a strike to your name. Remember, six strikes and you’re out.
How can Sports Direct cast off staff so easily? Simple – it never properly employs any of them. Over 90% of staff are on the infamous zero-hour contract, which carries all the negatives of self-employment (no guarantee of money, immediate loss of jobs) without the benefits. A wholly unjust system, particularly for a company that is worth billions as Sports Direct is. Under a zero-hours contract there is zero security. Sports Direct has no allegiance with its staff, and thus toys with them and throws them out when it feels like it.
Thus, another nail for fast fashion and value retailing’s coffin. These companies do nothing for home country staff, let alone foreign workers. They exist to line the pockets of a few rich individuals, and nothing more. The clothing industry is in your hands though. Vote with your wallet, and don’t support Sports Direct.
For more on Sports Direct's practices, see the Dispatches documentary.