07/06/2016 11:00 BST | Updated 08/06/2017 06:12 BST

The Sports Direct Shambles Shows Why the Law Alone Will Never Protect Workers

Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

Employment rights in the UK are, relatively at least, fairly good. They're not excellent, but they're good.

We have laws against maternity discrimination. We have Health and Safety laws to protect pregnant women from suffering at work. There's legislation preventing zero-hours workers from being prevented from seeking work elsewhere, from being harassed at work, and from being paid below the minimum wage.

There's a lot of law, rightfully, against terrible employment practices. We're protected.

Except this morning, during the Business, Skills and Innovation Committee's review of working practices at Sports Direct, we've heard piece after piece of evidence of those terrible employment practices being commonplace.

Evidence given by trade union Unite, which has been campaigning for staff at Sports Direct, included that a woman gave birth at Sports Direct for fear that she would be disciplined if she asked for time off; that new female members of staff are commonly referred to as "fresh meat"; that staff have endured assualts at work; that contracts for agency staff include clauses saying they cannot refuse to work assignments and that some of the poorest workers in the UK are having deductions to take their wage per hour below the minimum rate.

Mike Ashley, the billionaire responsible for Sports Direct, more or less had to be dragged in front of the select committee to give evidence. Once there, one of the first things he furiously claimed about staff welfare was that "Sports Direct can do a better job for Sports Direct staff than Unite can."

Leaving aside the fact that Ashley appears to be labouring under the delusion that Sports' Direct's role is to provide an immersive, dystopian experience of Victorian working conditions, (complete with real-life health problems!), his claim actually did something he likely never intended it to do: shed light on how the whole mess at Sports Direct happened.

Because Ashley is right: currently, Unite can't do any sort of a job for the people at Sports Direct. They can't directly look after them, they can't prevent Ashley's greed, and the incompetence of the directors of the agencies who supply his staff from allowing ridiculous employment practices in order to keep costs low, they can't influence the unrealistic contracts or physically step in when a security guard tries to strip search staff leaving a warehouse, they can't spot when an obviously pregnant woman is too scared to take time off and tell her to go home and leave the argument up to them.

They can't do that job because Ashley won't let them. He has refused to meet with Unite officials, even showing reluctance to do so when it was suggested at this afternoon's committee. He recognises no trade union. He has scorned even basic methods of collating staff feedback, such as online surveys. Firsthand reports from the warehouses and shop floors of his business say that staff are too terrified to speak out.

And as a result, the law is absolutely powerless when it comes to Sports Direct, because there is no-one to make sure that the basic standards it lays down are upheld. We can't trust Ashley to do it: this is a man who claims his business's primary value is "people", despite an almost obsessive reluctance to not employ any of them directly. We can't trust the agencies who supply the workers to do so: this morning their directors and CEOs showed little to no knowledge of either their own policies or the law, at one point admitting they weren't familiar with the parts of the legislation they were claiming supported their business model.

Staff can't do it themselves because they're too terrified to even fill in surveys. So they're trapped. Their legal rights boil down to being able to wait until something illegal happens to them, then quitting and taking their employer to a tribunal - if they can raise the fee and the courage.

If Unite or any union had been present on the floors of the shops and warehouses, that mechanism of protection would have been in place. Evidence repeatedly proves that trade union workplaces are safer, pay better, and have happier staff.. Ashley's implication that his workers' problems have happened despite Unite's campaigning is false. The problems have happened because of Unite's absence.

But one of the great things about the trade union movement though, is that simply by existing it protects workers whether it's allowed into a workplace officially or not. By ensuring that a big enough stink was caused about Sports Direct that Ashley has been dragged in front of MPs, Unite have done more for Sports Direct workers than Ashley has ever even considered doing. The very laws which can be called upon to protect us were won by unions taking action of exactly the sort they did today, and Sports Direct staff will get better treatment - eventually - as a result of Ashley being forced to bow to public pressure.

It's vital, however, that Sports Direct isn't seen as a terrible one-off. There are workers across the country virtually untouched by employment law and union protection, and in desperate need of both. Maternity discrimination is rife despite it being heavily legislated against, workplaces regularly fail spot-check HSE inspections, and 90 employers were named and shamed earlier this year for failing to pay the minimum wage. If we take one thing from the Sports Direct fiasco, it should be this: unionisation is the only way to make sure it never happens again.