Recent days have seen further revelations about many of the deeply unethical business practises, which have become routine in this country. Following the parliamentary grilling of Sports Direct and BHS bosses, it’s become clear that exploitative employers have a grip on huge sections of our economy. Scotland must face up to the challenge of shaking off such unscrupulous businessmen.
We have learned from Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley that he’s “not Father Christmas”. The chutzpah of this captain of industry, appearing before a Commons committee, was off the chart. He expected us to take pity on a simple hardworking billionaire who just couldn’t keep on top of everything in his vast empire.
Workers were paid less than the minimum wage. Employees in his warehouses were expected to walk 20 miles a day. There’s the account of one employee too scared to call in sick, resulting in a stroke at work. 200 workers at the company’s Ayrshire warehouse were sacked with only 15 minutes’ notice. Staff received harsh punishment for “excessive chatting” and toilet breaks.
The culture of fear at one site was so bad that ambulances were called out to treat staff 76 times in two years. This was immoral and in some cases illegal behaviour. Ashley clearly lined his own pockets by running a deeply exploitative business model.
Can we expect similar revelations when former BHS owner Sir Philip Green turns up next week to explain the collapse of the high street institution? The legacy he has left is the closure of 163 stores, the loss of 11,000 jobs and a pension scheme deficit of £571 million. Sir Philip and his family owned the BHS brand for 15 years before selling it to inexperienced venture capitalists for one pound. He is believed to have taken £580m out of the business in dividends, rental payments and interest on loans. He clearly has a moral responsibility to compensate those workers tossed aside like used cocktail sticks from his luxury yacht.
Green is an example of how money turns ministerial heads. Let’s remember he was knighted by Tony Blair and appointed as an adviser by David Cameron. We know what happened when Scottish First Ministers fell into the orbit of Donald Trump, and we all remember Fred the Shred of RBS infamy, who was lauded by many until he brought the bank to the point of collapse.
Time and again we see politicians weighing in to condemn such people after part of their business has got into difficulties. Wouldn’t it be refreshing instead if we challenged bullies and high stakes gamblers from the outset and made clear that the public purse will give them no encouragement and no privileges?
But what signals do we actually send? For a start, we keep dishing out public cash for dodgy employers. In recent years the Scottish Government and its agencies have handed grants and loans worth millions to groups such as Amazon, whose name is mud due to tax-avoidance and poverty pay. Ministers have defended these decisions citing job creation; but just think of the jobs we can’t create because of the missing tax revenue.
Besides, this public money could be supporting the new small independent businesses, which our communities need to develop thriving local economies.
Gambling with people’s livelihoods is simply callous and though employment law remains reserved to Westminster, we must not be afraid to push at the limits of what is possible in Scotland with the powers we do have. During the Smith Commission, the STUC advocated the transfer of employment and workplace powers but Labour, as with so much in that process, blocked the way.
We cannot wait patiently for a further round of devolution or a future independence referendum. This issue demands action right now, and if we do commit to the boldest action possible, we’ll build the case for Scotland taking real control too.
The Scottish Government’s Business Pledge is a step in the right direction.
It recognises firms meeting criteria such as paying the living wage, not using zero hours contracts and committing to diversity and gender balance.
Hundreds of firms are already accredited, ranging from Mackie’s ice cream to Hearts Football Club and City of Glasgow College.
We must go further. We must root out those who exploit workers, use tax havens or pollute the environment. At First Minister’s Questions, I challenged Nicola Sturgeon to ensure the Government’s “Fair Work” agenda contains real consequences for unethical and exploitative business practises. We can target public support towards firms that treat employees with respect and involve them in decisions, such as employee-owned businesses. We can show that a fair economy can be a successful and sustainable one.
This article first appeared in the National