Sports Direct has kickstarted the process of appointing a worker representative to attend its board meetings after caving into shareholder demands to change the way the company is run.
The sports retailer founded and run by Mike Ashley has opened the application process for the first regular staff member sit in on meetings as it attempts to clean up its image after a series of scandals.
Ashley said in a letter to staff: “I have always believed Sports Direct to be a business that was built by the great people who work here. I therefore believe it is important that your voice is heard at the highest level in order to continue to make a positive difference.
“I look forward with immense pride to sitting alongside the UK’s first elected workers’ representative at future board meetings of Sports Direct International.”
Nick Bubb, an independent retail analyst, was sceptical about the difference the appointment would make: “Sports Direct blathers on about appointing the first worker’s representative to the board. As if that will stop Mike Ashley doing what he wants to anyway.”
Ashley and the company he founded have attracted widespread criticism from shareholders and MPs over its poor corporate governance and treatment of workers.
A Guardian investigation in 2015 exposed how Sports Direct was failing to pay workers the minimum wage at its Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire, after harsh financial deductions for clocking in slightly late and being forced to go through unpaid searches at the end of each shift.
It prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the retailer’s treatment of workers, with MPs on the Commons business, innovation and skills select committee concluding that billionaire Ashley had been running Sports Direct like a Victorian workhouse.
Theresa May has also promised a crackdown on boardroom excess at large privately owned businesses, last year unveiling proposals intended to hold corporate Britain to account.
In an attempt to improve its image, Sports Direct bowed to pressure to make changes, including the appointment of a worker representative. Candidates who make it through an assessment process will be invited to stand in an election, in which 23,000 staff will be eligible to vote.
The appointment will be made for a 12-month period, with a new representative to be elected every year.
The first successful candidate will be chosen from the company’s retail division, followed by someone working in the warehouse or head office in the second year. The cycle will then be repeated. Representative will not be made directors.
A spokesman for Sports Direct said: “Having explored all options we believe this is the best way to ensure the Workers’ Representative is free to champion the interests of all staff. We see this as a major step forward in bringing about positive change.”