After growing criticism of pay and working conditions at Sports Direct International (SDI), the company announced at the very end of last year that it has made a commitment to increase pay above the U.K. minimum wage for its directly employed U.K. staff and directly-engaged casual workers, from the start of this year. SDI added in a brief statement that the related costs would amount to about £10 million (€13.4m-$14.6m) on an annualized basis.

Revealed by Mike Ashley, SDI's controlling shareholder, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, the pay rise should amount to about 15 pence per hour, so that workers aged 21 or above will receive £6.85 (€9.2-$10.0) and staff aged 18-20 will be paid £5.45 (€7.3-$8.0) per hour. The British government will be introducing a new minimum living wage of £7.20 (€9.7-$10.5) in April for all employees over 25, meaning that SDI staff in this age group will then receive £7.35 per hour. The pay rise would apply to nearly 15,000 retail staff, and about 4,000 employees at SDI's huge warehouse.

The move comes after an investigation by The Guardian, which alleged that some workers at SDI's warehouse in Shirebrook were effectively paid less than the minimum wage due to the time spent on security-related searches after their shifts – which are compulsory but not counted as part of working hours.

SDI replied that staff were subject to random searches, which it was striving to make efficient, and believed it was complying with regulations on minimum wages. SDI's board went on to announce last month that Ashley would personally review all agency workers' terms and conditions at SDI. The retailer also likes to point out that thousands of employees have received substantial bonus payments, some of which have been financially life-changing for them.

Ashley was quoted as saying in the Daily Mirror that he was making a New Year's resolution pledge, and that he wanted to see Sports Direct become the best high street retail employer, after John Lewis. He went on to acknowledge that, as a top listed company, SDI has a responsibility to set a high moral standard.

A trade union spokesman quoted by The Guardian was unimpressed about the move, which was deemed insufficient to address employment conditions at SDI – and to restore confidence among investors and consumers.

If the rise was intended to cajole investors, it appears to have worked only in part, as the company's shares have been on the slide after a short rebound on the day of the pay announcement. SDI has apparently decided to alter its public relations approach as it has been issuing a series of statements in response to recent press reports. The latest one relates to Michael Murray, who heads up the company's property team for the U.K. and internationally.

The Sunday Telegraph described Murray as the 26-year-old boyfriend of one of Ashley's daughters. Murray is reportedly a former night-club promoter, who was put in charge of a £250 million (€339.8m-$365.6m) property investment fund.

Without providing any personal background about Murray, SDI said in its statement that he was tasked with finding locations for larger format stores, as well as combined retail and gym units. It added that Murray has a consultancy arrangement with SDI, as opposed to a salary, and that he is not a director of any company in the Sports Direct group.

SDI emphasized that Murray's remuneration is based entirely on creating value and that the company's non-executive directors oversee an independent annual review, to decide how much of any increased “value” should be paid to Murray, up to a maximum of 25 percent. It remains entirely unclear in what way this added value is to be determined, but several British newspapers were quick to speculate that this could amount to millions of pounds.