Oliver TwistThe announcement that Sir Philip Green will appear before a Parliamentary Select Committee to weave his way around the numerous unedifying accusations that have been hurled in his direction ever since the collapse of British Home Stores, the high-street institution he flogged for a quid to three-times bankrupt businessman Dominic Chappell, may well provide the latest ugly insight into the parallel universe occupied by the Fat Controllers of British industry. News that Sports Direct has expressed an interest in purchasing some of the old BHS stores is ironic, yet somehow typical of the way in which these shameless characters operate.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Sports Direct founder and main-man Mike Ashley himself reluctantly appeared before a Parliamentary Select Committee to offer an explanation for some of the horror stories that had emerged of working conditions at his company’s warehouses following the revelations of investigative reporters. One former employee compared these conditions to a Dickensian workhouse, with the only notable absentee being a whip-cracking supervisor. Most employees were on zero-hours contracts, terrified of taking sick leave, and being illegally paid a wage below that of the national minimum one. A culture of fear and intimidation seems to have reigned at Sports Direct, one that glorified barrow-boy Ashley denied all knowledge of while declaring he wasn’t Santa Claus when dragged virtually kicking and screaming before his interrogators.

In many respects, Ashley and his ilk are men out of time. Their natural place is amongst the self-made magnates of the early Industrial Revolution, the first generation of business empire-builders who upset the previous order whereby fortunes were inherited rather than earned. Those were the entrepreneurs to whom a workforce was a dispensable source of cheap labour, whose treatment of that workforce went unchecked until social reformers intervened on its behalf and ended horrendous practices that the new captains of industry would happily have carried on with; indeed, they vociferously fought against the repeal of such practices by claiming their reform would cripple businesses that were making the country a handsome profit, especially in exports to the expanding colonies. Similar arguments were used in those very colonies when slavery faced abolition.

The rags-to-riches rise up the social ladder that took place in the early years of the nineteenth century saw its beneficiaries ape the attitude of their old-school superiors by quickly looking down on their employees with a contempt that even exceeded that of the aristocracy they emulated, as though distancing themselves from the social demographic they emanated from required an exceptional degree of cruelty to emphasise how far they’d come. The treatment of employees at Sports Direct, or indeed the alleged plunder of the pension funds of BHS, would suggest this attitude hasn’t really changed in two-hundred years. One could almost say the best way of measuring success for some of these loathsome figures is to inflict as great a dehumanising humiliation upon their workforce as their mean little minds can muster.

From Thatcher onwards, however, and peaking during the Blair era, these are the kinds of businessmen who are lionised and showered in honours. Who cares if their profits are funnelled away to some Caribbean tax haven and they spend half of the year in Monaco or the Cayman Isles? Just look at what they’ve achieved for the Great British economy!

The uncovering of the sweatshop-like environment of Sports Direct’s distribution centre in Derbyshire lifted the lid on the realities of modern Britain’s own Industrial Revolution. Referred to by locals as the ‘Gulag’, the premises are known to favour immigrant employees with a poor grasp of English and an ignorance of workers’ rights, just as the early mills that powered the original Industrial Revolution employed uneducated women and children ferried-in from workhouses situated in a different part of the country. Following on from a Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ report on Sports Direct, BBC News revealed further details a week ago, including the revelation that employees can be fined fifteen minutes’ pay for clocking-in a minute late; there was also an abundance of plastic bottles filled with urine littered around the distribution centre – suggesting limited access to toilets during working hours; and not to mention the firing of workers who have been absent with illness more than six times (resulting in employees attending work whilst sick, one particular case climaxing in a fatal stroke).

If the bastards that run and profit from these grim human charnel-houses can get away with it, they damn well will do; yet, stripping a knighthood from them is little more than a symbolic, token gesture issued by a political class that have enabled such soul-destroying working conditions to come to fruition through their sponsorship of, and sucking up to, the men that make a mint from them.

© The Editor


5 thoughts on “THE FAT CONTROLLERS

  1. It’s an interesting comparison that in the 19th century, when the workers had absolutely no protection, that period threw up reforming and benevolent employers like Robert Owen and Titus Salt who provided their workforces with standards of living and social benefits beyond any wildest dreams of the time. Their loyal workers worked hard, but enjoyed standards far in excess of their peers elsewhere in those exploitative times.
    Since the State has progressively taken on the role of people-nanny in all aspects of life, after paying their employers’ National Insurance fees, the management has been discouraged from being involved in anything other than the raw profit motive, now reflected in the very marginal behaviours of those various ignoble knights.
    Somewhere in between is a balance of decency, where workers are rewarded, valued and respected, and where entrepreneurial employers can develop their trade without unreasonable restraint. It is probably not feasible to legislate for that and probably not reasonable to expect it to evolve by itself, largely because the Owen and Salt equivalents of the 21st century have to answer to grasping institutional shareholders and not just their own family fortune.
    Even though mostly legal, there is no defence for the behaviours of Green, Ashley & Co, just as there was no defence for the MPs’ expenses scandal, but that’s what happens when natural morality is replaced by opportunism within an apparently regulated environment. Cold-calling, no-win-no-fee lawyers, FOBT gambling, it’s all part of the same culture and it’s not a nice one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have friends who live in Saltaire and it still stands as a remarkably benevolent gesture on the part of its founder. In some respects, Titus Salt was untypical of his time, and while it’d be nice to think he was ahead of his time in virtually building a town from scratch for his workforce, it’s very difficult to imagine his approach to employees being replicated in the present day.


      1. You’re right, it wouldn’t happen today because all the social responsibility for the workers and their living standards has been ‘outsourced’ to the government via the NI system, so there’s no motivation for employers even to consider it.
        But, as Lisboeta says below, respect works both ways and any good employer should know that you get the best result from your investment in people if you treat them well.
        In my corporate days at a new big company, I inherited a large and dispirited team of people who had been beaten down by years of petty rules and regulations – I got them all together (in works time !) and announced that the rules had been binned, we were going to work on a mutual trust basis, if they felt they could justify any action/expense to me, then they should be free to do it. After the shock of that had subsided, it built into one of the best and most productive teams I’ve ever managed, and all because they were suddenly being treated like adults. (I never told the company HR Department and neither did my team – we were all in that together).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Owen and Salt weren’t the only examples of enlightened 19th century and early 20th century employers. (Building ‘model villages’, schools, and clinics may not have been entirely altruistic: healthy, satisfied workers tended to be loyal, reliable ones. Respect works both ways! A lesson sadly forgotten.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “… be fined fifteen minutes’ pay for clocking-in a minute late.”

    I’d noticed this while reading about Sports Direct a while ago & it made me laugh (bitterly) as I’ve worked in such places: well known companies, unionised (largely to the benefit of the union reps & their pals) yet happy to go along with such practices. Actually, being a SECOND late is enough to see your pay docked… but if (mis)management decide to deliver an ‘inspirational talk’ you can be sure it’ll begin at the moment you should be finishing your working-day (perhaps with a child to pick up from school or a night-class to rush to) and that you will be expected to sit and listen, unpaid…

    I’m afraid that the journos ‘discovering’ these ‘horror stories’ are as detached from real-life as the barons of industry behind them. Where once Orwell got his hands dirty in the kitchens, The Guardian placed “two undercover reporters inside Sports Direct’s warehouse”… Hmmm, I wonder if they were Polish?

    The videos in this article are hilarious: people clock out! People work in a warehouse!! Staff are searched!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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