Aditya Chakrabortty writes:
If we learned one thing from Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley today, it is that he’s not Santa Claus. He enjoyed repeating this message to MPs.
Instead, he’s a hardworking billionaire who just can’t keep on top of everything in his company.
Employees on wages that were effectively illegally low? True enough. Temp workers offered permanent jobs in return for sexual favours? No worse than what happens at Sainsbury’s.
Docking pay for anyone turning up a minute late? If it happened to one of Ashley’s kids he wouldn’t be too impressed.
On he went, in a mealy-mouthed exculpation for utterly immoral behaviour.
You wouldn’t have thought, listening to the human bulldozer, that he ran a warehouse ruled by fear. Where workers were expected to walk 20 miles a day and blared at over a tannoy.
Where men too scared to call in sick instead went in and suffered a stroke. Where ambulances were called out to deal with births and miscarriages – including a woman who gave birth in the loos.
All this happened at one of the key sites of the Ashley business – but to listen to the man, it was all down to overzealous managers and, besides, he couldn’t be expected to keep an eye on every part of operations.
Doubtless, the same could be said for how 200 workers at the company’s Ayrshire warehouse had been sacked with only 15 minutes’ notice.
Or how staff were dealt harsh punishment just for “excessive chatting” and taking long toilet breaks.
There comes a point at which such barbarous treatment is so widespread and so enduring that it can no longer be considered a mere slip or managerial faux pas: it is an integral part of the business model.
That is the case with Sports Direct. Ashley has made millions because he got away with pushing staff to breaking point.
Yet MPs continued to treat Ashley as if he were a businessman, not a bull-necked bully in a suit.
Doubtless, they’ll give similar deference to Sir Philip Green when he turns up at parliament next week to explain the ransacking of BHS.
Green, don’t forget, was given his knighthood by Tony Blair and appointed an adviser to David Cameron.
Parliamentary bear-baiting such as we saw today shows us what Ashley and Green and Fred Goodwin (another Blair knight) and the rest are like.
But it only happens after these people have been given their honours and made their millions – and after something so rotten has been exposed in their business that MPs feel obliged to dish out an obligatory round-housing.
What would be meaningful parliamentary action?
Calling for the prosecution of anyone paying illegally low wages. Banning the exploitation of temp workers that British business has normalised.
Most of all, breaking the habit of British politicians to treat any spiv with a spreadsheet as a business guru.
Not all businesses are the same.
Not all deserve to be called businesses, if by that term we mean running firms that actually pay their way in society.
Our politicians make no such distinctions.
They use our money to build factories for businesses, who pop in and then jet off. They spend millions building roads for distribution centres, as the Welsh government did for Amazon.
Most of all they use taxpayer billions to top up poverty pay.
I’ll believe our politicians mean business when they define what a business actually is – and act accordingly.
Until then: no, Mr Ashley, you’re not Father Christmas. Nor are you a businessman.
You’re a greedy, immoral man who has pocketed millions from treating humans like battery hens.