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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014, 11:53 am

British Soccer Clubs Have the Chance To Level the Playing Field

BY George Lavender

Even while top soccer players, such as Arsenal FC's Mesut Özil, are regularly paid 180,000 pounds a week, the workers employed at club stadiums struggle to make ends meet, a new report says. (Ronnie Macdonald / Wikimedia Commons)  

Soccer is big business in Britain, but not everyone who works in the Premier League benefits from that prosperity. According to a recent report by the community organization coalition Citizens UK, even while chief executives make millions, workers who cater, clean and provide security for top soccer clubs are getting paid minimum wage. Right now, the report says, many employees at stadiums around the country are earning £6.31 an hour—well below the estimated national living wage of £7.65.

Sophie Stephens, the report's author and lead organizer of the North London branch of Citizens UK, says challenging soccer clubs to increase their wages makes sense because “these are businesses that employ a huge number of people on a short-term basis right in the heart of our community.” Since 2011, members of the North London Citizens have been campaigning to make the local teams Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur pay all their workers a living wage, which, in London, would be £8.80 an hour. So far, though, they’ve had limited success.

Arsenal is the world's fourth most valuable soccer team, with an estimated yearly revenue of £235 million. And with Arsenal spectators paying the highest ticket prices in the league—at least £985 for an adult season ticket—some fans say they want the club to do more to portion out the wealth.

“Fans already make quite a big financial contribution,” says Tom Chigbo, an organizer with London Citizens and a longtime Arsenal fan. “A lot of people feel disappointed that their financial contribution isn't being shared around the club.” 

Citizens UK's report also included a testimony from Richard Poku, a former caterer at several stadiums, including Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. Poku points out the enormous disparity between players’ salaries and workers’ wages.

“It’s ridiculous that people with kids have to come from so far away to earn basically nothing. Footballers are earning that much because people are paying to watch the matches, and we are the ones catering for them,” he says.

Top players like Arsenal’s Mesut Özil regularly earn almost 180,000 pounds a week, the report says; Stephens estimates it would take 13 years for a full-time cleaner to make the same amount. She also says that many workers are often forced to take second jobs in order to make ends meet.

The issue is complicated somewhat by the fact that many workers at stadiums are employed by subcontractors rather than by the teams themselves. But Stephens maintains that the responsibility for paying those workers still rests with the clubs. 

“Ultimately the people who decide the cost of the contract are the people who put it out to tender,” says Stephens. “It’s much easier for us to make a difference to the person who holds the contract, rather than the person delivering the contract.” 

Though regional branches of Citizens UK have focused on putting pressure on their local teams to boost salaries, the campaign’s overall goal is to persuade at least one of the country’s Premiership soccer clubs to take the lead on offering workers a living wage. It's a strategy that has worked in other sectors, points out Jane Wills, a professor of human geography at Queen Mary, University of London. 

“Once you get one big company or big organization to sign up and they become a champion for it, then it becomes much easier,” she points out.

Such tactics are familiar territory for Citizens UK. In addition to its mission to improve soccer clubs, since 2011, the campaign has recruited nearly 500 employers around the country to meet criteria set up by the Living Wage Foundation, one of Citizen UK’s other initiatives. 

Wills says the achievement is impressive, albeit surprising.

“I don't think anyone thought it would work,” she says. “We've also had at least 20 years of unions trying to resist … reductions in wages and conditions through subcontracting and failing to do that, so it really seemed very unlikely that this group was going to make any progress at all.”

Working poverty is a problem all over Britain. Twenty percent of employees earn below the living wage; in some areas, like Wales or the north of Ireland, that number is even higher. According to the government's own statistics, in the past five years, average wage raises have failed to keep up with inflation—meaning that, in real terms, workers have had a pay cut.

In response, perhaps, the public has become  in favor of implementing a living wage across all sectors.

“What's been brilliant about the campaign is that it’s put together a really broad coalition of support,” says Wills, “So that it's almost impossible not to support the living wage.”

The fans themselves have been among the most vocal supporters of raising soccer clubs’ wages. Andrew Jacobs, a Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder for almost 50 years, says the living wage is “an idea whose time has come.”

As a lay-leader at Finchley Reform Synagogue, Jacobs says he's talked with members of his community who support London clubs like Arsenal or Tottenham “to ask them to get involved and lend their voice ... to show [their clubs] the broad base of support that there is within the community for adoption of the living wage.” 

Having lost to local rivals Arsenal on the pitch this year, Jacobs says he hopes that his team can get one over on their neighbors. “I would love to see Tottenham pip Arsenal to become the first Premier League club to become a living wage employer,” says Jacobs. But so far, he says, the response from his club has been “standoffish.”

In fact, that's been the response from many clubs in the Premiership, who have mostly refused to meet with the campaign. At the Arsenal Annual General Meeting, which is open to shareholders and fan associations, a group of fans asked Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis to raise the pay rate for contract workers to a living wage. Gazidis replied, “the London living wage [campaign] is well-intentioned, but the issue is complex and political and, in any case, the Arsenal benefits packages are generous in market terms.” Though he would not clarify the specifics of the packages, Citizens UK maintains that this generosity doesn’t apply to subcontractors.

In an email to In These Times, an Arsenal spokesperson confirmed, “Our employee remuneration packages exceed the London living wage requirements. Ultimately this is a matter for national legislation.” (The representative declined to state the exact wage rate for Arsenal’s directly employed or subcontracted staff.)

That's a “poor excuse,” according to Stephens. “There's no reason employers can't be getting on with adopting this if they believe it's the right thing to do,” she says. “It's sad that they feel they have to wait for national legislation.”

Manchester City has come closest to meeting Citizen UK's demands. Last year, the club announced it would pay interns and apprentices the living wage. However, the team has not yet extended the living wage to its contractors. In a recent letter to the Living Wage Foundation the club wrote, “As discussions have progressed around the possibility of formally becoming a ‘living wage accredited employer’, it has become apparent that there are some practical and economic difficulties in achieving accreditation.” To become an accredited living wage employer, businesses must commit to ensuring all workers, including subcontractors, are paid the living wage. Still, the club has voiced support for the living wage and “recognizes the importance of promoting it wherever possible.”

Many clubs in the Premiership, including Arsenal, like to tout their history of supporting local charities as evidence of their commitments to improving their neighborhoods. As the country's favorite game has become a multimillion-pound industry, however, Stephens says soccer clubs “have become more and more business-oriented and have moved away from the communities they are supposed to serve and represent.”

For Stephens, and other campaigners, becoming a living wage employer would be a great way for clubs to share the success.

George Lavender is an independent radio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. He’s a producer of “Making Contact,” a weekly half-hour radio show, and reports for Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News, and the Pacifica Network. He has also written for The Guardian, New Internationalist, Journal of Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Truthout, and local newspapers in the U.S. and UK. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

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