Ian Herbert: It defies belief that the £5.1bn Premier League won't paying a living wage

COMMENT: The gulf between the best and lowest paid workers is an embarrassment

Ian Herbert
Sunday 15 February 2015 22:15
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A steward guards an exit at Anfield
A steward guards an exit at Anfield

It was a throwaway comment by one of the Premier League’s richest football clubs which first struck a chord. They told me the other week that they’d partly reduced their workforce number by natural wastage and I wondered how that could possibly be. This is a club expanding in almost every way imaginable, recruiting an army of staff to develop their website and multilingual social media operation, while seeking new corporate sponsors across all continents and sectors.

And then I saw one of that same club’s stewards doing the self-same job at a nearby League One club, because the Premier League team in question were playing away from home. And the penny dropped. The wealthy clubs may be recruiting to build their global profiles but those individuals you will see at ground level – Dave, or Liz, the steward; Steve or Sandra behind the bar – almost certainly won’t be on your club’s payroll at all. They’re a part of your Saturday afternoon – people with whom you’ve probably had 100 stoically cheerful conversations about the team’s fortunes – but their work has all been outsourced. Many of them aren’t even guaranteed the 19 days’ work a season which a Premier League season should bring. “They’re the zero-hours contracts no one seems to talk about,” as someone put it to me last week.

There were accusations of opportunism when the idea that these people deserved more than the minimum wage came to the surface, after the TV companies’ willingness to pay £10.19m per game to screen football laid the foundations for what will almost certainly be the future £300,000-a-week footballer. But it was not such a terribly new notion. Campaigners have been leafleting Arsenal fans outside the Emirates for months, in support of the campaign led by Citizens UK for a living wage – the academically calculated sum, based on a basket of basic goods, that Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy has assessed to be the minimum rate needed to let workers live a decent life. An ethical minimum, rather than a legal minimum, if you like, a distinction which has entered the fabric of United States life, before ours.

It’s a conversation about people like Don, who works the stadiums to tide him over, with three children and no other means of employment for the past 18 months. And Agnes, whose real name we also can’t use in case she loses the Premier League waitressing job that pays her £7.10 an hour. Her medical qualifications, enough to bestow professional status back in Hungary, are not enough here and she’s in football’s catering trade to tide her over while she requalifies. And John Crowley, the only one whose name we can put to this piece because he’s 22, has graduated, and the money he earns serving food in the executive boxes at Chelsea and Arsenal is only a means to an end. “I know I’m not going to be a waiter for the rest of my life,” he tells me.

These people are not at the bottom of the pile. The fact that they can access football clubs means they can at least find employment. But the gulf between the best and lowest paid at the places they work is, frankly, a crashing embarrassment. You wonder how Arsenal – a club managed by one of the game’s deepest thinkers – can have such a staggering lack of self-awareness to allow Agnes to take home £1,500 a year maximum when Alexis Sanchez commands £7.8m – 5,200 times more than she does. It “only” took an annual salary 169 times that of the average British worker – the former Barclays chief executive John Varley’s £4.36m – to prompt a national debate on pay ratios a few years ago.

If any of the clubs Crowley works for was going to introduce a living wage then he’d probably have said it would be Arsenal, “because they really always seemed to have a lot of respect for the staff and the management are nice and they’re flexible with schedules,” as he puts it. But, what do you know, it turned out to be Chelsea who made the unprecedented step among Premier League clubs, in December, of insisting that all staff – including those employed by the big companies like Compass and Delaware North, who do most of the catering – should be paid the living wage. “It’s changed our view of Chelsea,” Crowley says of himself and his colleagues. “The club are saying, ‘There’s a level of respect for you.’ And we recognise that they recognise what we do. It affects the way you feel when you are standing there, being the face of Chelsea, when it’s going mental in the half-time rush.”

There are over 1,200 accredited Living Wage employers in the UK, including Barclays, Nationwide, Goldman Sachs, ITV and Nestlé. Three of them are football clubs: FC United of Manchester, Heart of Midlothian and Chelsea.

Campaigners have targeted the Premier League in their challenge to this chasm between the sport’s richest and poorest employees, and though my understanding is that Citizens UK will meet chief executive Richard Scudamore this week, he and his organisation seem to be the wrong target. It’s only the clubs who can make this decision. The TUC and the GMB union in North-west England are approaching the Merseyside and Manchester Premier League sides individually to press their case. Some activists wonder if supporters might get behind the case, ardently pressing for change as they would for a new centre-forward, but they will press on regardless. “The argument is moral as well as economic,” the TUC’s James McKenna tells me.

It is not a campaign that will make a whole world of financial difference. A living wage would deliver £8.80 an hour to John Crowley, rather than the figure between £6.90 and £7.35 which he currently takes home. That’s £14.50 more for a maximum 10-hour shift. “It will help some of the others more than me,” he says. “People are travelling a lot further than me for this work because they need it so much more. A living wage might mean they’ll catch the train home, instead of the bus.”

So listen out for the conversations if you’re on a late £6 Megabus home from London to Coventry or Birmingham, some Saturday soon. That’s where you’ll find a Dave, a Liz, a Steve or a Sandra, after another day’s work at the football club they’d give the world for.

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