Mike Ashley, CEO of Frasers Group, which is behind Sports Direct and House of Fraser, has apologised after his response to the COVID-19 pandemic received public backlash.
In an open letter Mike Ashley said: “Given what has taken place over the last few days, I thought it was necessary to address and apologise for much of what has been reported across various media outlets regarding my personal actions and those of the Frasers Group business.
“Our intentions were only to seek clarity from the Government as to whether we should keep some of our stores open; we would never have acted against their advice. In hindsight, our emails to the Government were ill-judged and poorly timed, when clearly they had much greater pressures than ours to deal with. On top of this, our communications to our employees and the public on this was poor.
“There has been no dress rehearsal for what we as a nation are currently tackling, and I for one am immensely poured of how our Government, our NHS & all of our key workers have handled the situation so far. I would especially like to thank my Frasers Group employees, who have stood by the business in difficult times before and are doing so again currently. We are working very hard to save our business, so that we can continue to be one of the biggest employers on the UK high street once this pandemic has passed.
“Outside of Frasers Group, I have offered our support to the NHS and we are poised and ready for when that offer is accepted, with our entire fleet of lorries at their disposal – to help deliver medical equipment and supplies. This offer is not limited to the NHS but all key workforces across the Government. We will help wherever possible.
“Finally, to reiterate, I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days. We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future.
“I strongly encourage everyone to follow the Government’s advice, stay safe and healthy through these challenging times, not least my employees.”
The apology came as union Unite demanded that Ashley send home Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse workforce and pay them for the duration of the coronavirus period. There are an estimated 3,000-4,000 workers at its Derbyshire warehouse.
In her letter, Unite regional officer Cheryl Pidgeon said: “We have reports of workers being threatened with no jobs if they self-isolate when they have underlying health concerns.
“We have reports of people being told not to bother about just having two people in the car when they drive to work– but to come in ‘in fives’. We have photographic evidence of lack of products available for workers to wash as per government guidelines.
“We have reports of workers not staying two metres apart and photographic evidence of this. People are today still using scanners with their fingers and being searched closely.
“The products that many people are working on are not critical to the nation at this moment in time – we have photographic evidence of this also. There are many, many scared workers at the warehouse.”
“These are decent human beings who have served Sports Direct loyally in difficult conditions on low wages and many are on non-permanent contracts. They are not fodder to make mass profit at the expense of their own health and safety, and that of their family. The work at the warehouse is not critical as per government guidelines.
“Many of the community are ex-miners with severe chest health problems – by not allowing workers to go home and stay safe you are putting local communities at risk.
“For the sake of the employees, the local community and the business reputation please allow workers to go home, stay safe and pay them their usual wages without loss of money.
“There is nothing more important than the health and safety of all workers at the warehouse – ask Mike Ashley, for once, to do the right thing by the workers – put them and not profit first.”
Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands Paresh Patel said: “When the history of the coronavirus comes to be written, Mike Ashley’s already besmirched reputation will be in shreds, unless he does the right thing and send his Shirebrook workers home on full pay for the duration of the coronavirus emergency.
“Ashley has become fabulously rich on the backs of low-paid workers – now is the time that he should rise above the ruthless pursuit of profit that has pockmarked his controversial career – the nation is watching.”