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Austerity, women & health inequalities


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Sports Direct is sneaking into Ireland: this is bad for us all

Cycling down Talbot Street a couple of weeks ago I saw something that all but made my heart stop: the banners, the scaffolding, the insidious signs of something very bad, very quietly creeping into a place it does not belong in. Like a thief in the night, Sports Direct is coming to town. And the prospect is dire.

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A few facts about Sports Direct:

  • Sports Direct and Mike Ashley have been subject to a Parliamentary Enquiry. The findings, which you can read here, were condemnatory to say the least.
  • Sport’s Direct’s warehouse in Shirebrook has been likened to a ‘Victorian warehouse’ where some staff are effectively paid less than minimum wage.
  • Staff at the warehouse who took maternity leave were put onto zero hours contracts after returning (source).
  • 90% of Sports Direct’s staff in the UK are on part-time zero hours contracts (source).
  • Direct quote from Parliamentary Enquiry:

    Workers at Sports Direct were not being paid the national minimum wage, and were being penalised for matters such as taking a short break to drink water and for taking time off work when ill. Some say they were promised permanent contracts in exchange for sexual favours. Serious health and safety breaches also seem to have occurred. For this to occur in the UK in 2016 is a serious indictment of the management at Sports Direct.

What Sports Direct is doing in the UK (owing to the liberalisation of the labour market):

In the town that I am doing my PhD research in, Stockon-on-Tees, Sports Direct is nestled above the Debenhams department store in the town centre. There, you can get cut-price Slazenger, Dunlop, Lonsdale and Karrimor goods. But don’t be fooled, you’re not getting as good as deal as you would like to think; Mike Ashley’s company bought these brands long ago, they have long since been destined for the bargain bin of retail history. Stockton has a high enough rate of unemployment-7.1%, compared to 7.5% for the rest of the North East, quite a contrast to Great Britain’s average of 5.1% (Stats from Nomis). Sports Direct, like other retail and hospitality businesses (think Weatherspoons, Iceland, Topshop or WHSmith) in high streets like Stockton, represent one of a shrinking number of employment prospects for workers.

This unemployment figure is a bit deceptive, though. Post-recession, the seeming fall in unemployment  rates has been due to a huge rise in the numbers of those in self employment, those ‘underemployed’, on zero hour contracts, casual contracts and temporary employment. The gendered dynamics of this are endemic, women are the disproportionate bearers of these types of work, but that’s for another day. Low pay is an obvious consequence of this insecure work (stats and graphs from TUC blog).

Something toxic is taking place in the UK labour market (as well as in the welfare state, with austerity’s kiss of death welfare reforms). Outside the City of London’s financial services hub and other large cities, low-paid work, insecure self employment and casual contracts represent some of the only solutions for growing numbers of people-4.5 workers, and their families, in England and Wales (source).

This is a direct and deliberate consequence of thirty years of neoliberal policy-making. It isn’t accidental, it isn’t a natural consequence of an efficient ‘free market’, or progress; it’s politicians serving the interests of their rich mates, and large multi-nationals and billionaire CEOs lining their pockets, at the expense of ordinary workers, those who actually comprise that abstract thing we call ‘the labour market’, men and women who still have to feed their families, heat their houses and buy school uniforms.

But we’re in Ireland, so who cares?

I care, and you should care too.

Companies like Sports Direct are the epitome of bad employment practices. While it’s easy enough to point at your teenage son’s zero hour summer job or a mum with kids at school’s part-time work and say ‘look at them, they’re doing great’, the reality is more complex. Casual labour, with it low-pay, insecurity and a lack of additional entitlements such as pension and holiday and sick pay, is on the rise in Ireland, as this report from TASC demonstrates. It lowers the bar for all of us, lowers the standards of what we expect as normal, denigrates the value of decent pay and good working conditions.

The often rolled out example, of very young workers and some mothers, who only seek and are available for very part-time work, is only a small proportion of those who are underemployed and in low-paid, insecure work. The progress we saw during the last century, the rise in living standards and gain in years of healthy life, were no accident. They were a consequence of things like the welfare state, the introduction of universal healthcare (the NHS is something we should look to as inspiration in Ireland, with our two-tier dysfunctional healthcare model) and, of huge significance, the battles fought by Unions, by workers themselves, to guarantee minimum wages, decent working conditions, and unemployment insurance. I’m not being idealistic here, these used to be obvious, common-sense things.

We seem to have forgotten how important those things were, and what work was like before we had them to take for granted. Sports Direct opening in Ireland is a really unfortunate and sad thing. It represents a threat to workers’ rights and the value we place on quality employment that affords a decent wage.

So, I suppose the question is: what do we do about it?

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