If you’re from the UK, you’ll be acutely familiar with Sports Direct. And if you’re not from the UK, but happen to be a serious Skepta fan, then you’ll probably know the Sports Direct name from its appearance on a coffee mug in one of his recent music videos, and his proclamations to HYPEBEAST that “when I’m in the States…I come through with my Sports Direct and JD Sports swag,” statements that led to one Complex editor labeling it “the most fashionable shop in the UK right now” when speaking to the Guardian last year – a sizeable achievement for what’s basically Britain’s very own version of Walmart.
For those of you that don’t fall into either of these two groups and have no idea what Sports Direct is, let me explain: it’s a budget sportswear emporium with over 470 stores across the British isles, and it specializes in cheap tracksuits, cut-price football shirts and sporting equipment priced so low that it makes you wonder how the company manages to turn a profit. And it does turn a profit. A massive one that amounted to some $351.7 million in 2015, and makes its owner, Mike Ashley, a bloated toad of a man that looks like he sweats pennies and smells of cash, Britain’s 15th richest person.
It was always a bit of a mystery to me how a company that seems to be stuck in a state of never-ending sale, whose items are marked down as much as 90%, manages to turn a profit. Sure, its stores might look like refugee camps pieced together from bundles of Dunlop tracksuits, but cutting back on presentation doesn’t tally up to multi-million dollar revenues. But then over the past couple years, following investigations by the BBC and the Guardian, things suddenly became a lot clearer: Sports Direct offset its low prices by flagrantly violating the rights of its workers.
According to news reports, workers were fined 15 minutes of pay for every minute they arrived late to work. Their paltry wages would arrive on Sports Direct-issued prepaid cards with their own service fees and charges for using ATMs, one of numerous practices that sank their earnings below the national minimum wage. Workers would be fired for missing six days of work, regardless of illness or circumstance. As a result of these draconian penalties, many employees came to work sick, leading to multiple calls from workers experiencing chest pains and even one that gave birth in the toilets. Bottles of urine left scattered around Sports Direct warehouses suggest that employees toilet breaks were monitored and restricted. A Channel 4 documentary investigating the allegations described Sports Direct as a sweatshop, and compared its working conditions to those of the Victorian era.
Depressingly, the case of Sports Direct isn’t a horrible anomaly, but rather a symptom of a wider malignancy in consumer capitalism. Amazon has been accused of making staff at its UK fulfillment centers “physically and mentally sick,” with workers allegedly suffering from musculoskeletal problems, work-related stress, and anxiety. Famously, a former Bezos employee from the U.S. wrote in the Guardian that “being homeless is better than working for Amazon.” The fashion industry’s reliance on sweatshops is well documented. Bangladeshi workers perish in H&M factories and few tears are shed. The practice continues, sending out a message that their lives are as disposable as the clothes that they died making. And all of this is born out of a demand for cheap consumer goods that’s downright immoral.
When someone buys a pair of Lidl jeans for $8.73 or orders a cut-price book off of Amazon, that price has to be offset somewhere down the line and it’s utterly naive to think that this offset is ever going to come out of bosses’ profits. Manufacturers can cut back on materials and production, driving the quality of the goods down, which they often do, but a company like Sports Direct doesn’t make many hundreds of millions in profit by simply by substituting cotton for acrylic – they do so by cutting every corner they possibly can, and that process always involves battery farming their beleaguered workers for every last shred of cheap labor that lies buried within them.
Whenever we buy from Sports Direct or H&M or any other firm that exploits its workforce, we are complicit in that exploitation because an oppressive system cannot function without popular support. The horrors of the Third Reich may have been orchestrated by a few sociopaths, but they required a whole ecosystem of passive culpability and tacit acceptance to execute them. By buying cut-price consumer goods, we buy a stake in the degradation of those workers that make those low prices possible.
For those that might dismiss the Sports Direct case as an isolated example of an employer gone rogue, you couldn’t be more wrong. The problem isn’t that Mike Ashley just happens to be an inhumane boor, it’s that the whole rotten system breeds that sort of behavior. In an economic model where someone’s individual worth is so often tied to how much they earn, the huge discrepancy between underpaid workers and their bosses creates a grotesquely lopsided power dynamic, one that has been shown to facilitate abusive behavior. By helping drive down the financial value of their labor, we drive down the value of workers and help open them up to abuse.
The solution to this problem is both simple and reductionistic. By refusing to hand over our money to the likes of Sports Direct or Amazon, we as consumers can force these companies into changing the way that they treat their workers. That’s easy enough for those that have enough money to shrug off the savings that these companies offer, but not everybody is like Skepta and gets to wear a dirt-cheap Kappa tracksuit out of choice. For most people it’s a matter of financial necessity. If money were no object, we’d all choose to wear Versace over Versace for H&M, just as those working at Sports Direct would obviously choose to work elsewhere if that option was open to them. But the uncomfortable truth is that the luxury of choice is often only afforded to the wealthy.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.