I’ve written previously about the collapse of retailer BHS. This week, some of the grisly details began to emerge, as a parliamentary select committee began its investigations. Particularly striking was evidence given by former executives about its owner Dominic Chappell. Chappell – a thrice bankrupt former racing driver with no retail experience – bought BHS for £1 in in 2015. In the hearing, former finance consultant to BHS Michael Hitchcock called Chappell a Premier League class liar with his fingers in the till whilst Darren Topp, the former CEO, claimed that Chappell threatened to kill him.
Next week, Sir Philip Green, who, having ransacked the business, sold it to Chappell is also due to appear before parliament to answer questions about what happened to the pension fund. He is facing pressure to make good the fund’s £571M deficit and there are calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood.
BHS is now being wound down, with its 11,000 employees facing redundancy, because no buyer could be found. Yet, according to Chappell, there was a willing buyer who was dissuaded from the purchase by Green (something Green denies). This buyer was Mike Ashley, who is now to be called to give evidence about this.
By a strange coincidence, Ashley – founder and owner of retailer Sports Direct – also appeared before a parliamentary committee this week (despite attempts to avoid doing so). Sports Direct stands accused of failing to pay staff the minimum wage, and a litany of unpleasant practices with the effect that:
“There had been 110 ambulance call-outs to his main warehouse site in just over three years as workers suffered chest pains, stroke, injury, and five births or miscarriages – including one woman delivering her baby in the toilet – such was the fear, according to the union, of losing your job if you took time off … [with] allegations made that the time staff spent queuing to be partly strip-searched by security guards before leaving the factory had driven wages below the legal national minimum wage per hour, or that female workers were sometimes asked for sexual favours in return for longer hours.”
I suppose there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that these cases are being investigated by parliament, and the increased power and activism of select committees is, I think, a positive development. And, of course, there are plenty of good and responsible employers.
Yet these two stories taken together seem to disclose something about the dire state of management practices in some and perhaps many parts of British businesses today, and about the, let’s say, unappealing characters who lead those businesses. And it’s not just in Britain. Last month Oxfam reported that chicken farm workers in the US were being denied toilet breaks and forced to wear nappies. This won’t come as a surprise to readers of my book, where (p.133) I give the example of a Californian factory in which workers were told to urinate in their clothes rather than take toilet breaks. Indeed, the poultry workers are rather humanely treated by comparison: at least they are allowed nappies.
The foundational study in Labour Process Analysis from which (to simplify) grew Critical Management Studies, was Harry Braverman’s (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital of which the subtitle was ‘the degradation of work in the twentieth century’. Half a century on and we seem to be seeing degradation at work as the defining feature of the labour process; an all too literal labour process when women give birth in toilets to avoid losing their jobs.