Government urged to act over Mike Ashley and Tim Martin’s treatment of workers

Health Secretary Matt Hancock watches Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Co...

Health Secretary Matt Hancock watches Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

The prime minister has been urged to act over the treatment of workers during the coronavirus outbreak by Sports Direct and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, and Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin.

Both companies have faced heavy criticism over their handling of staff welfare, with conflicting messages over pay and working hours.

Ashley's Frasers Group has been attacked for telling workers at Sports Direct they must still turn up to stores, despite a government shutdown, while staff at his Jack Wills chain were also in work on Tuesday.

Martin's Wetherspoons chain wrote to workers telling them they will no longer be paid, saying he would only start payments again once the government's scheme to cover 80% of wages is in place.

The actions of Frasers Group boss Ashley were raised in parliament by Newcastle upon Tyne Central MP Chi Onwurah.

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She said: 'Not all businesses are doing the right thing and I am particularly thinking of Mike Ashley forcing workers into empty Sports Direct shops.'

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: 'The instruction to the gentleman in question, and indeed every business, is to follow what the government has said, to obey the rules or to expect the consequences.

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'That is the best way to look after not just their employees but their businesses as well.'

The chairman of the Business Select Committee Rachel Reeves, meanwhile, has asked the bosses for a response by Friday as to how they are protecting workers during the outbreak

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She has asked for 'detailed information about the measures that Wetherspoons is taking to support its employees during the current coronavirus crisis'.

She said: 'This is a national emergency, and governments, citizens and businesses are taking unprecedented measures to protect lives and livelihoods.

'I was therefore disappointed to read that you have not indicated whether you intend to cover the wages of your staff until government support comes through.

'This is despite other companies in your industry guaranteeing that they will pay their staff for at least eight weeks.

'Furthermore, you also seem to have suggested that when the government do pay 80% of your staff's wages, you might not pay the other 20%.

'Finally, I am deeply concerned that while you encourage your workforce to consider working for supermarkets, you note that if they do, you will give them 'first preference' if they 'want to come back'.'

Questions include:

- How many of your staff will be furloughed?

- Will you pay your staff's wages up until the Government's money comes through?

- Will you pay the remaining 20% of your staff's wages when Government support begins?

- How you will pay and treat staff that you employ who are on zero-hour contracts?

- Will your staff have to reapply for their jobs when the present crisis is over?

In the letter to Ashley by the select committee, Ms Reeves said: 'I am writing to ask for detailed information about the measures that Sports Direct, House of Fraser and Newcastle United Football Club are taking to support their employees during the current coronavirus crisis.'

Questions included:

- (What is) the proportion of staff designated as 'furloughed workers' on full-time, part-time and zero-hours contracts?

- The number of staff who will be made redundant.

- Confirmation that Sports Direct, House of Fraser and Newcastle United will continue to pay the wages of staff in full until the funding from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme becomes available.

- Whether any extra staff taken on for deliveries will be paid the National Living Wage.

Both letters are signed: 'Given the gravity of the situation, I would appreciate a reply by Friday 27 March.'

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