Mike Ashley, Sports Direct

LONDON — Under-fire discount sports retailer Sports Direct on Wednesday said it has chosen a 30-year-old store manager from Barnstable as its first ever “workers’ representative.”

Alex Balacki will sit in on board meetings to ensure that workers at the company are being treated fairly by management, Sports Direct said in a statement on Wednesday.

Balacki appears to be a Sports Direct lifer, having joined the company when he was 17 as a casual sales assistant on Saturdays. He was selected from 3 candidates identified by an earlier internal review process.

Balacki said in Wednesday’s statement: “I’m very proud to be chosen by my fellow members of staff to fulfill this important responsibility. I’d like to thank everybody who took part in the elections, including all of the other candidates. It’s now my role to ensure the people of Sports Direct are heard.”

Sports Direct first announced it would be creating a “workers’ representative” in September last year, saying the representative would “give workers a voice at the highest level and to help ensure that all staff are treated with dignity and respect.”

The company was at the time under intense pressure with regards to the treatment of its staff. Sports Direct has long drawn criticism for its extensive use of zero-hour contracts at its stores but last year an investigation found staff at its warehouses were effectively being paid below minimum wage. A report by MPs branded conditions at its Shirebrook headquarters akin to a “Victorian workhouse.”

However, the wording of the “workers’ representative” position appears to have changed since it was first announced. Last year Sports Direct said the appointee would be “appointed to the Board,” which would give them voting rights and direct power. However, Wednesday’s announcement simply says Balacki “will attend meetings of the Company’s Board of Directors.” 

It is not clear whether this means he will not have voting powers. Without voting powers, it is unclear what real power Balacki will have to defend workers’ rights at the company. Business Insider has contacted Sports Direct for clarification.

Sports Direct founder and CEO Mike Ashley says in a letter to staff on the appointment:

“I’d like to be the first to congratulate Alex, who will help us to continue to make a positive difference by ensuring that your voice is heard in the boardroom. I have said many times that this is a company that was built by the great people who work here. I am therefore delighted that the people at Sports Direct have voted to choose the company’s first UK elected Workers’ Representative.”

Balacki will serve as workers’ representative for 12 months, before a new person is elected. The first meeting he is due to sit in on will take place in the Spring.

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