As I See It

Retail bosses deserve a grilling

Terry portrait with tieOf all the issues facing Britain’s retailers (online competition, business rates, unseasonal weather), it is the way in which those running some of the top high street companies manage their staff that deserves the greatest attention.

Mike Ashley, majority shareholder in Sports Direct, will face questions from the Business, Innovation and Skills committee tomorrow over working conditions at a company warehouse.

Also expecting a grilling in the Commons is Sir Philip  Green who next week appears before MPs investigating the collapse of Bhs.

Both men have built billion-pound fortunes on the back of an industry which doesn’t have its troubles to seek. Bhs is being wound up, and while Sports Direct remains successful its owner is being forced to defend its employment practices.

A third retailer, Marc Bolland, is also being drawn into a potential row over his earnings at Marks & Spencer. Despite falling profits and a failure to turn around its struggling womenswear division, the former CEO has been well rewarded.

The company’s annual report is expected to show that he picked up £17m during his six years at the company, which includes a year of gardening leave.

Shareholders in a number of companies have been protesting over big pay awards handed out to executives and M&S could be the next to face a backlash.

A common factor in all three cases is how those at the sharp end of the retail business – the shop workers – are being treated while their managers stick their noses in the trough.

The allegations against Mr Ashley are focused on his Shirebrook warehouse, but he has form in Ayrshire where he dumped staff at a moment’s notice. Philip Green paid his wife hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends while the pension scheme was on its way towards a £571 million deficit.

Mr Bolland, who spent heavily on glamorous advertising campaigns and revamps of the high street store, has walked away with his millions and left his successors to cut back. Once again it is the shopfloor staff who pay the price: a loss of overtime payments and the termination of the final salary scheme.

Retail is one of Britain’s biggest industries. It is also one of the poorest payers. While MPs this week address issues specific to Mr Ashley and Sir Philip, they should take note that while the executives of Britain’s top stores help themselves to six and seven figure bonuses, many shop staff are on the minimum wage, work part-time and on holiday weekends when other workers enjoy a break.

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