THE FAT CONTROLLERS

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

CHIRPY CHIRPY CHEAP STREET

BHSAutomatic doors that open and close when we enter and exit shops are so commonplace now that it’s easy to forget what a novelty they once were. The first such doors I ever encountered were in the mid-70s and in Huddersfield, of all places. I remember stepping in and out of the premises over and over again just to experience the sensation which seemed to me straight out of the USSS Enterprise. The shop in question was British Home Stores. A year or two later, a brand new ‘shopping precinct’ (as they used to be called) emerged on Boar Lane in Leeds, complete with a bizarre plastic tube housing an outdoor escalator that again seemed to have arrived directly from a sci-fi show. The main shop at the forefront of this futuristic retail behemoth was British Home Stores. One of my first forays into it revealed they even had a record department. Those were, indeed, the days.

The news that BHS – as the business gradually became known (acronyms are so ‘street’) – is to go cap in hand to the Receiver, with the potential loss of 11,000 jobs, is a reminder that George Osborne’s LTER (that’s Long Term Economic Recovery to those of you not ‘street’ enough) hasn’t been much use to the traditional residents of the city centre high-street. On Gideon’s watch, the likes of Comet, Clintons and JJB Sports (all 2012), Blockbuster Video (2013) and Phones 4u (2014) have all disappeared, joining the likes of Virgin (2007) and Woolworths (2008), which vanished while Gordon Brown was moving his furniture from No.11 to No.10. The past decade has seen a radical facelift of the high-street, one in which most of the chain-stores to have superseded the old mainstays are either endless, interchangeable coffee shops or the discount and pound stores.

The rapid rise of the latter is symptomatic of an age wherein people want to pay, at best, as little as possible for anything or, at worst, nothing at all. A glance at thirty or forty-year-old ads for long-gone department stores that are easily located online can be surprisingly revelatory in that so many goods, from food and clothing to electronic accessories, tend to be more expensive than they are today or more or less the same price. In the 60s and 70s it was to be expected that the customer paid handsomely for quality – whether a pair of slacks or a colour telly – because the purchase would be an investment in something that was intended to last for years rather than months. The ascendancy of the designer label in the 80s again placed emphasis on the quality of the item, even if the item itself was secondary to the label in importance.

If there is a key difference between the increasing cost of living since the financial crash of 2008 and the economic crisis of the mid-70s it’s the fact that during the Three Day-Week era, prices rose in unison across the board while wages stalled. Today, whereas the charges of energy suppliers are even greater in relative terms than they were in 1973/74, the overall cost of essentials such as food and clothing has actually fallen. The likes of Waitrose may have cornered the market in selling a largely expensive range of edibles, though the customer prepared (or able) to pay is actually paying for something worth eating. Ever since the pioneering no-frills cheap foodstuffs of Netto in the 90s – 10p for a tin of spaghetti! – those in the lower-income bracket have had a far wider range of choice than back in the era of Fine Fare, Hillards and Safeway; what that choice entails, however, may or may not be linked to the truth that we are a far fatter nation than we were forty years ago.

The concept of the hand-me-down, whereby each child inherits the former outfit of its elder sibling, arose from times when new clothes were expensive and any wear and tear was patched-up and stitched-up to extend the lifespan of the ensemble as much as possible. These days, with the proliferation of stores selling cheap gear and an abundance of charity shops, the necessity of making do and mending has been reduced to near-extinction in all but the very poorest of households. Thanks to Asian sweatshops unburdened by silly things like worker’s rights, trade unions and a fixed eight-hour working day, an entire wardrobe can now be purchased on a regular basis at an affordable price; when it inevitably begins to fall apart, the low cost of replacing it renders the sewing box redundant.

Many of these factors have played a part in the impending collapse of British Home Stores, not to mention the dubious business dealings of the company’s fat cat owners and shareholders helping themselves to upwards of £586 million of profits in recent years, according to the latest revelations. That many middle-aged shoppers have relied on BHS, as they do Marks & Spencer, when so many of the cheaper high-street upstarts primarily target a younger customer base, has been viewed by many as a reason for its rather fusty and old-fashioned image; the thought that older consumers might have a favoured retail outlet that ‘the kids’ avoid is indeed an utterly hideous notion, and we can’t have that on our bargain basement boulevards.

© The Editor