Sports Direct says it is struggling to enforce Covid-19 rules | World news
Sports Direct has turned on the temporary recruitment agencies that provide thousands of staff to its controversial Derbyshire depot, as the retailer attempts to fend off criticisms about how it has safeguarded warehouse workers’ health during the coronavirus pandemic.
The company appeared to admit to failures in following Covid-19 safety standards inside the facility as it said it was reviewing the contracts of the agencies because “in some cases we have struggled to enforce [with the agencies] that they adhere to government/WHO [World Health Organization] regulations”.
The comments follow widespread criticisms of a variety of retailers for potentially risking their workers’ health by keeping their warehouses open during the lockdown so that online operations can be kept running. The decision over whether to keep the warehouse open is down to Sports Direct, not the recruitment agencies.
An email sent by a Sports Direct spokesman to the Guardian said: “Our overriding concern is and always has been the welfare of all staff working at Shirebrook – full time employees and agency staff alike – with a commitment to guaranteeing hours for them all.
“We have strictly followed government/WHO guidelines and are continually advising and supporting our entire workforce so these new rules are enforced.
“For clarity, when coronavirus hit we were mid-tender with all of our agencies, having had concerns that some of the agencies were not looking after their staff.
“We are not downsizing but looking to work with responsible suppliers. This current, awful situation has only further highlighted how unreputable [sic] these agencies are; in some cases we have struggled to enforce that they adhere to government/WHO regulations. As a result we are currently reviewing our contracts.”
The spokesman later attempted to recall the email, stating that it had not been approved by Sports Direct’s legal department and that there was now no review.
The response came after the company was asked about allegations made in a series of interviews conducted by the Guardian with Sports Direct’s warehouse workers and local campaigners. They alleged that Covid-19 safety standards have been ignored inside the warehouse, while it is also claimed that certain agency workers were being pressured to go to work instead of self-isolating.
It was also sent just a day after Sports Direct bowed to government pressure and closed all its retail stores, having initially attempted to remain open, claiming it was providing an essential service in helping people keep fit. The company has now volunteered to deliver NHS supplies around the country using its fleet of lorries.
Several other retailers – including Next, Asos and Topshop – are continuing to run their online operations while the country is in lockdown.
On Thursday, the union Usdaw condemned Sports Direct’s rival JD Sports for “putting lives at risk” and called for its Rochdale warehouse to be temporarily closed. Meanwhile, the fashion retailer Moss Bros has announced it is closing its online operation to protect staff.
Local Shirebrook campaigners have been growing increasingly concerned that some Sports Direct workers are being pushed into turning up for work and that the two metre distance rule, designed to lessen the chances of passing on Covid-19, was not being adhered to.
A letter sent by the union Unite to Sports Direct on Tuesday evening, which has been seen by the Guardian, stated: “We are being contacted by outside agencies [ie local charities] who are raising real concerns as they have been contacted by employees in desperation who are diabetic and feel that they should be self isolating. It is reported that they have been told that they will be fired immediately if they self isolate.
“It is [also] reported that many, many people are still working in close proximity to each other at the warehouse and are being told they are key workers and must stay at work. Additionally reports are coming in that there is very little soap available for hand washing.”
One of the agencies said it supplied fewer than 100 workers to the site and that it would “never pressure anyone to go to work”. The other three agencies did not comment.