A day at ‘the gulag’: what it’s like to work at Sports Direct’s warehouse

After stopping in an overflow car park, most shuffle silently across the road and into an illuminated 800,000sq ft structure that seems to emerge out of the darkness like a visitation in some bad science fiction film.
The crowd clutches packed lunches that have been stuffed inside transparent plastic shopping bags, which allow hovering security guards to quickly inspect what is being brought inside. A fingerprint scanner grants access to the building through security barriers, while everybody remains under constant surveillance from cameras. If you are spotted wearing unauthorised clothing, you are immediately pulled aside by the guards.

These security procedures are not designed to monitor people attempting to gain access to some secret organisation engaged in highly classified work – or even individuals visiting dangerous criminals. This is the routine grind for low-paid staff reporting for work on the nine-hour “day shift” at the warehouse of Sports Direct, the thriving sports retail empire founded and controlled by the billionaire owner of Newcastle United, Mike Ashley.

The publicity-shy tycoon and his business have been widely criticised for the conditions at Shirebrook – known locally as “the gulag” – where up to 5,000 staff clock in each day. It is hard to discern why the place is so maligned when you first arrive, but slowly the reason emerges.

Step by step, minimum-wage workers are informed of what is expected of them for the headline rate of £6.70 an hour (in reality, many receive less) – including being told they will walk almost 20 miles each day inside the warehouse as they pick products off the shelves.

They can occasionally be harangued by name via tannoy if they don’t move quickly enough – “please speed up with your order as soon as possible”, the speaker system barks – while “crimes” against the company – called “strikes” and including “errors”, “excessive/long toilet breaks”, “time wasting”, “excessive chatting”, “horseplay”, “wearing branded goods” and “using a mobile phone in the warehouse” – are punished. Six strikes in six months and you’re out.

There are other requirements, too. A daily search – part of Sports Direct’s zero tolerance of theft – involves workers lining up before being ordered to strip to the final layer above the waist and empty their pockets. They are then asked to roll up their trouser legs to reveal the brands of their socks and expose the band of their underwear. Occasionally workers are hauled into a side room for a more detailed search.

Agency workers are given a list of 802 sports and clothing brands they are prohibited from wearing. They include Sports Direct’s own brands such as Dunlop, Slazenger, Karrimor, Sondico and Lonsdale as well as third-party labels including Nike, Adidas and Reebok. Despite these restrictions, the daily searches still take time and it seems to take most workers about 15 minutes to leave the building after their shift has ended. The extra time is unpaid.

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Few know details of the working practices at this successful retailer, as executives are extremely loyal to the company’s founder and rarely speak publicly. Meanwhile, many agency workers, who have few rights and can be dismissed without notice, seem to exist in constant fear that any indiscretion could cost them their job.

During November, the Guardian placed two undercover reporters inside the Shirebrook warehouse, as well as speaking to scores of current and past Sports Direct workers.

The story that emerged shows Ashley refusing to increase productivity by investing in new technology. He believes productivity gains promised by the new technology are non-existent unless you know what products your warehouse will be handling years in advance. Instead, he focuses on building a retail machine whose cogs almost entirely consist of people: cheap people, typically from eastern Europe, who understand little, if any, English. To accommodate them, all signs and announcements inside the building are made in Polish as well as English.

“It’s voodoo retailing,” says one former executive colleague of Ashley’s. “He makes money out of financial engineering. The buying and manufacturing is very simple and done in the dumbest way possible. There is no complexity. Everything is bought as cheaply as possible. There is one warehouse, located in one of the cheapest places in the country, there is no sophisticated computer system. If you go to the Amazon warehouse it is all very automated. At Sports Direct it is very manual.”

The first thing that strikes you when entering the facility is its sheer scale. The main warehouse is the length of 13 Olympic swimming pools placed end-to-end – about 2,100ft long and 410ft wide. It houses row upon row of goods stacked in cardboard boxes, which in turn are perched on blue and orange metal shelving that rises more than 50ft into the air. There is another floor above.

Next door a second warehouse of a similar size is being constructed, and life in both is relentless: Sports Direct operates its warehouses 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Inside, the workers – about 2,000 on the busiest shifts – buzz around wearing unbranded clothing, safety boots and various colours of high-visibility jackets. If you wear a white jacket, you are a new starter whose main aim is to avoid getting lost and receiving a rollicking. You get a yellow bib once you’ve earned some stripes, typically after being there about a week; and, most importantly of all, there is a blue jacket for the bosses. “Just do whatever the blue jackets tell you,” new recruits are told on their first day.

And you do exactly that – no matter how laborious or seemingly pointless the task. The nature and the tedium of the jobs on offer is illustrated at the rear of the facility, where rows of workers are engaged in what is known as “tunnelling”.

Cages of garments are manually sorted, tossed onto tables corresponding to certain stores that are lettered A to N, or slipped on to coat-hangers and transferred to numbered rails for internet orders. The products are then inserted into polythene covers, on which the worker applies a sticker, before returning the item to the rail for somebody to wheel to another point in the warehouse. The rails are transferred up to the higher levels of the warehouse, where rows and rows of them are stored, waiting for the pickers to select the products to be dispatched.

Amid the low hum of gloomy conversation in foreign languages, thoughts always seem to be drifting back to work.

Workers are warned that if they clock in one minute late – or clock off one minute early – they will be docked 15 minutes’ pay. Some even wait by the screens for the precise moment their break is due to start before clocking off, despite being warned that this is considered a cardinal sin. “If they see you waiting to clock out, you can get into a lot of trouble,” says one coordinator.