The Dickensian Sports Direct scandal is the result of successive governments desperate for jobs

The wilful blindness of governments striving for good employment figures and regeneration, following industrial decline, has led to companies exploiting their workers through agencies with increasing ease.

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“I’m not Father Christmas,” Mike Ashley told MPs this morning. “I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful.” It was a rare up-front comment from a man who has long attempted to hide from scrutiny. The business committee has been locked in a battle with the Sports Direct founder for months just to get him to show up – he only capitulated when they threatened to hold him in contempt of Parliament.

Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse is like “the gulag, Victorian, a workhouse not a warehouse”, according to trade union Unite. Workers get strikes on their discipline records for spending too long in the loo, talking too much and calling in sick. One woman working at the Derbyshire site gave birth in the loo because she was afraid of losing her job if she went to hospital.

Shirebrook, which is built on the site of a derelict coal mine, employs 200 Sports Direct staff – but another 3,000 are hired through agencies. And while no one misses the dangerous conditions and the industrial diseases of deep mining, the Shirebrook colliers could at least rely on a strong union. In contrast, Sports Direct bosses won’t even meet with unions to discuss collective representation for agency staff, many of whom are recruited from Eastern Europe.

But in 2002, the redevelopment was heavily encouraged by the East Midlands Developments Agency and the national quango English Partnerships, who had “reclaimed” the site “for employment use.”

“It's got to be a good thing,” the chairman of the local council said. “We applaud it and we encourage any landscape and environmental improvements. We also encourage anything that will bring jobs into the area.”

Sports Direct was founded in 1982, but has rapidly grown in the past decade – making it “a victim of its own success” according to Ashley at today’s hearing. The truth is that its rise is inseparable from the story of Britain’s industrial decline. As heavy manufacturing shut up shop, projects that would contribute an arbitrary figure to the “local economy” and “bring jobs into the area” were frequently waved through the planning process without protest.

The approach was in full swing under New Labour, but has accelerated under David Cameron. In 2012 the government announced 24 new “enterprise zones” with huge tax incentives and “automatic planning permission” for some developments – they plan for 48 to be in place by April next year.

For governments concerned only with creating an impression of low unemployment, the quality and security of jobs created is rarely a major concern. And it took time for politicians, unions and campaigners to get to grips with the reality of modern work practices. Zero-hour contracts, which are rife at Sports Direct, received next to no attention from the press until a few years ago.

It’s easy to say bullying, low pay, insecurity and exploitation could be dealt with if only staff would rise up, but managers have deliberately made this as hard as possible. Some Sports Direct workers have never even been given a contract, according to Unite – others have been told they are both self-employed and temporary.

Scratch below the surface of many firms and you’ll find workers pitted against each other to compete for hours and cheapskate rewards, while unions are blocked from coming on site. Tannoying workers for not working hard enough – which Unite claims still happens at Sports Direct, in spite of Ashley’s denials – can create not only a climate of fear but a deep sense of personal shame and alienation.

Bosses also wash their hands and blame the agencies. And confusing, bureaucratic webs are harder to navigate not only for individual workers and unions, but for the politicians and journalists whose job it is to hold companies to account. Sports Direct may be a household name, but The Best Connection and Transline – the two agencies who employ most of the chain’s workers – don’t register the same significance.

A catalogue of alleged horrors at the online clothing giant Asos has been centre-stage at the GMB union’s conference this week. At Asos’s own distribution centre in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire, workers get texts with their hours – or lack of them – each morning.

Security guards search workers after they’ve been to the loo, whistleblowers slaim. “We need to get our customers behind us because the only people these companies listen to is the customer,” Asda worker Carol Clarkson said in a debate about retail employment practices.

She’s right – and it’s only the public scrutiny and recent financial and legal troubles that have forced Ashley to account for his actions. But while high-profile campaigns against high-profile brands help push workplace exploitation onto the agenda, they can’t be an end in themselves. Because it’s not just a few bad apples. We shouldn’t expect Mike Ashley, or any other retail boss, to be Father Christmas – it’s in their interests to keep their workers down.

On June 17 GMB leader Tim Roache will unveil a huge banner by the entrance to the Asos warehouse – defying bosses’ attempts to keep union organisers away. It’s by building industrial strength on the inside – rejecting attempts to pitch worker against worker, to pitch local workers against migrant labour – that bosses like Ashley will be defeated in individual workplaces.

But it’s successive governments that allowed this to happen. And only a far more critical approach to so-called regeneration and new positive employment rights – which Jeremy Corbyn has encouragingly promised – will halt the next Sports Direct, and the next dozen, in its tracksuit.

Conrad Landin is a Glasgow-based journalist writing about work, politics, transport and culture, and Scotland editor of the Morning Star. He tweets @conradlandin