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Unite welcomes Mike Ashley's chairman's demise

THE resignation of gig economy employer Sports Direct's chairman was warmly welcomed by Unite today.

Keith Hellawell in 2002
Keith Hellawell in 2002

Keith Hellawell (pictured) will retire from the retail chain with immediate effect following today's annual general meeting.

The former West Yorkshire Police chief constable and government drugs tsar became chairman in 2009 and was in the post during the massive public backlash over the company's appalling working conditions, with many temporary workers paid below the legal minimum wage.

He had previously faced pressure from minority shareholders to leave his role at Sports Direct and, in 2016, offered his resignation after the retailer came under pressure for exploitative employment practices.

Its warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, was said to be run like a “Victorian workhouse” by a parliamentary inquiry in 2016, with staff subjected to searches at the end of every shift, for which they were unpaid, and punitive deductions from their wage packets for clocking in only a minute late.

Workers were said to live in fear of racking up enough "strikes" over a six-month period for petty infringements, such as "long toilet breaks," "time-wasting" and "excessive chatting," which could lead to them being sacked on the spot.

Staff were even forced to abide by a strict clothing policy, which banned more than 800 different brands from being worn at work.

Despite this, the board backed Mr Hellawell to continue in his role and help the company improve, but he continued to face investor opposition.

He narrowly survived a re-election vote at last year's AGM, when 47 per cent of investors voted against him.

Mr Hellawell claimed he had "overseen significant improvements in the working practices and corporate governance" in his nine years at Sports Direct.

“It's about time he resigned,” Steve Turner, the union’s assistant general secretary, said. “During his tenure he has presided over shocking working conditions at the Shirebrook warehouse.

"The question now is will his replacement stand up to Mike Ashley in the interests of workers and shareholders."

A total of 9.8 per cent of investors voted against the re-election of Mr Ashley, Sports Direct’s founder and chief executive, at the AGM.

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