The 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