Student Voices: Sports Direct – A Victory For Workers?

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By Frazer MacDonald

This week, online and high street retailer Sports Direct is facing a lot of derision from the government and newspapers for underpaying their staff and treating them badly, with company founder Mike Ashley admitting that staff were paid below the minimum wage and regularly fined for being late. The emergence of this story seems like a victory for the working masses, a mark against a system which has for a long time valued the sustainability of a corporation over people’s lives. But is it really? Perhaps, this seems more like an exception – Sports Direct have done something so morally repugnant that the government has no choice but to intervene in some way.

Let’s look at the facts. The national minimum wage currently stands at £7.20 per hour for people over 25. In 2015, the rate increased by £0.20, meaning that people between the ages of 18 and 25 would get £6.70 instead of £6.50, and people over 25 would now receive £7.20 instead of £7.00, and so on. However, this again appears to be a small victory for the nation’s workers.

The negative treatment of workers is only partly a matter of governmental policy. Beyond the law, the respect for companies and the mistreatment of workers is a product of tradition and culture and is one that can’t fully be solved with the implementation of laws. Where money is concerned the government is capable of doing it, but very little can be done on a company-to-company basis. No law can account for every situation a person may find themselves in.

In short, the law can do very little to create more decent business owners who value their workers. Most of the time, although it can happen, it doesn’t seem to be a problem in small, independent businesses, where the owner relies on their staff, as much as in a large company which can easily find more staff and which will always attract new employees.

The problem with this is that people are viewed in a similar way to money and items. In other words, as commodities which a boss can make his or her own and give away as he or she sees fit. It creates a system where employers expect staff to be perfect at their jobs and employees expect to be given the chance to learn and grow within a company. These conflicting interests aren’t really two things which can exist next to each-other, but the requests of the employee seem to be far more reasonable. The vast majority of the time, it is managers and business owners who are disloyal to their staff, but the problem seems to be rarely viewed from this angle. Instead, workers – particularly young workers – are seen as indignant, loyal, or lazy for making honest mistakes which, in the grand scheme of things, rarely reflects the reputation or the financial returns of a business. In a perfect world, young people would be seen as what they are: ambitious, determined, valuable.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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