Paying staff a living wage is football's chance to get ahead

It would be a boon for the reputation of our richest clubs if they are identified with the movement for social justice

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The Independent Online

It would take a full-time worker on average earnings 555 years to earn what Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s captain, earns in one year. The BBC has a helpful calculator on its website that allows you to find out how long it would take you to earn a top footballer’s salary. Or the other way round: it takes Rooney 18 minutes to earn the average salary of £27,000.

This is a good way of dramatising inequality, and it is also a way of engaging public opinion in a practical campaign to do something about it. Too often, complaints about the gap between rich and poor concern faceless bankers, trading in financial products few understand and avoiding taxes that no normal person has heard of, let alone paid. When Ed Miliband attacked the Conservative Party for being funded by hedge-fund managers, he raised valid questions about inequality and its interaction with politics – but how many people know what a hedge fund is?

Footballers, on the other hand, are visible. Everyone can understand what they do and why they get paid so much for it. As spectators, we know that it is our desire to watch them that pays the £5bn agreed last week as the price of three years’ television rights, which will then go to inflate the salaries of the stars even further.

This is a good time to pause and to take stock. We do not begrudge footballers their huge rewards – not much, anyway, and often we want our team to pay more to get the best. But the huge deal struck by the Premier League with Sky and BT is a chance to reassess the sharing of resources in football. As Cole Moreton reports today, a supporters’ campaign is gathering momentum at Arsenal and other clubs to pay the living wage to their staff. So far, Chelsea is the only club that is committed to paying the living wage – £9.15 an hour in London and £7.85 elsewhere – with West Ham promising to join them from June.

Now is the time for the supporters of all the other Premiership clubs to take a leaf out of Martin Wroe’s book. Wroe wrote to Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive of Arsenal, asking him to pay his friend Raja, who works for the club, the living wage. It would take Raja a decade to earn what Mezut Ozil, one of the team’s stars, earns in a week, Wroe said: “I’m guessing he’d help Raja himself if he bumped into him – but that would be charity and what Raja needs is justice.”

Football is famously bad at doing what it should do before it has to, and its record in reminding its top professionals of their social obligations is poor. But with its campaign against racism, at least, it showed it is capable of improving itself and becoming one of the arenas of social progress. It would be a boon for the reputation of our richest clubs if they identified with the movement for social justice.

This is not a way of letting bankers and financial institutions off the hook, but a chance to mobilise people around what they know. If the campaign for the living wage in the Premier League can be won, it would then strengthen the case for the living wage in other sectors of the economy.

Inequality is one of the great challenges of our time. The Independent on Sunday is cautious about accusing the present Government of increasing inequality: despite the rise in the number of food banks, the evidence for a widening gap between rich and poor generally is lacking. But the gap between the luckiest and unluckiest in Britain has long been too great. We are cautious, furthermore, about proposing simplistic policies to try to reduce inequality. But the campaign for a living wage is a good way to build up a social movement to support lasting change.

And the campaign for a living wage in the Premier League is a good place to start. Let Wayne Rooney earn his millions. Every now and again he is worth it. But let Raja earn £9.15 an hour, too.