Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley survives bid to remove him from Sports Direct

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley
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Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley survived calls to be ousted from the board as shareholders backed him at the group’s annual meeting despite a storm of controversy.

The Newcastle United owner - who has a 55% stake in Sports Direct - and company chairman Keith Hellawell faced trade-union protests and calls against their re-election after being criticised over the firm’s treatment of workers and corporate governance.

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley.

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley.

Institutional investors Royal London Asset Management had also voted against Mr Ashley’s re-election as executive vice chairman, citing concerns over his failure to attend four board meetings and other corporate governance concerns.

While 12% of investor votes failed to back Mr Ashley’s re-election to the board at the group’s annual general meeting in Derbyshire, 88% of votes cast supported him.

The voting results also showed only 8.5% of votes were either made against Mr Hellawell’s re-election or were withheld, with a total 469,334,684 votes cast in his favour, compared with 43,386,351 against and 12,423,154 withheld.

Trade union Unite staged a protest outside the AGM dressed in Victorian clothing to demand an end to what it claims are “Victorian” work practices at the group and demanded staff were paid a living wage of £7.85 an hour.

The protest at the company headquarters was one of 40 being held, with Sports Direct shops across the country also being targeted.

The Trade Union Share Owners group (TUSO) had also urged investors to vote against the re-election of Mr Hellawell ahead of the meeting.

TUSO, a coalition of trade union funds, said Mr Hellawell had failed to tackle issues such as extensive use of zero-hours contracts.

Unite regional officer Luke Primarolo said: “This vote builds on last year’s shareholder revolt and demonstrates mounting concern over Sports Direct’s ‘Dickensian’ employment practices and poor corporate governance.

“Sports Direct needs to scrap its Victorian work practices and restore dignity at work by putting employees on permanent contracts and paying the real living wage.”

Unite estimates there are about 3,000 workers on zero-hours contracts at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook headquarters.

A further 75% of staff across its UK stores are also on zero-hours contracts, with Sports Direct accounting for a fifth of all such contracts in the retail sector, according to Unite.

Sports Direct’s shareholder meeting, to which media were unusually not invited, was also accompanied by a short trading update confirming sales were in line with expectations.

Dave Forsey, chief executive of Sports Direct, said: “We continue to focus on the roll-out of large format city-centre stores and the expansion of our national distribution centre in Shirebrook.”

The group is targeting underlying earnings of £420 million for the full-year.

A Sports Direct spokeswoman said: “Much of the comment around the group’s use of zero hours has been unfounded and inaccurate.

“The group complies fully with all legal requirements which relate to casual workers, including holiday and sick pay and freedom to gain other employment.

“Casual workers also benefit from general incentive schemes.”