Pressure on Sports Direct intensified yesterday as it became the subject of a debate in the House of Commons.
Former shadow business minister Chuka Umunna tabled an urgent question to ask why HM Revenue and Customs is not investigating claims that Sports Direct effectively pays below the minimum wage, as set out in a report by the Guardian last week.
Umunna said trade union Unite had made a complaint against the retailer, but Revenue and Customs replied saying it could not act without evidence from Sports Direct employees.
“But, of course, all of them are refusing to come forward in the warehouses concerned, for fear of the repercussions that will follow,” said Umunna.
He branded the retailer a “bad advert for British business” and one “with a culture of fear in the workplace”.
In reply, business minister Nick Boles said HMRC could investigate “proactively” in some cases.
“HMRC enforcement is entitled to conduct targeted enforcement activity in sectors of concern, so it is entirely open to HMRC to investigate proactively in sectors where it feels that breaches may be in evidence. In that sense, it does not necessarily need to wait for a specific complaint to be able to investigate breaches.”
However, he said the government could not act on the basis of a newspaper article alone, however well researched, and urged concerned employees to come forward using the confidential ACAS hotline.
“ACAS is an absolutely, resolutely independent organisation, so people should have no fear of calling that hotline out of hours and reporting a practice.”
Boles said the government takes the enforcement of minimum wage laws “very seriously”.
He added: “I do not care how famous or well-connected employer are, and I frankly do not care how much money they have made. They must obey the law, and if they do not we will enforce it. We will fine them and disqualify directors if necessary.”
Sports Direct said: “Sports Direct believes it is in compliance with minimum wage regulations and takes its responsibilities extremely seriously.”