It is a well-worn trope to compare footballer’s wages with those of the ‘man on the street’, but often overlooked are the men and women on the concourse, behind the programme stands or in the club shop who share the same employer as the players on the pitch. They get to see the wage differential between footballers and workers at its most stark. Last year a campaign was initiated to try and get Premier League clubs to sign up to paying all of their employees a living wage. Since the sale of Premier League TV rights for £5.4 billion, the arguments of campaigners have carried even more weight.
Moreover, as a general election approaches the issue of a living wage promises to become something of a political football. Labour have pledged to increase the minimum wage to £8 per hour, which though a small step forward, is still short of what is considered a living wage, certainly in the Greater London area. The campaign wants Premier League clubs to sign up to paying full time employees £9.15 per hour within London and £7.85 per hour outside of London by the start of the 2016/17 season. Premier League football clubs might not exist above and beyond the law exactly, but they nevertheless provide a fairly exceptional case in arguments about what bosses should be paying their employees.
The usual argument provided by business is that an increase in statutory wages stifles competitiveness, and could even force an increase in the cost of services. The idea of ‘competition’ when it comes to football clubs is a spurious one. Football supporters are just that, supporters, not customers. An Arsenal fan is not going to take is his custom to Tottenham Hotspur, as casually as you might change which local Chinese restaurant you opt for. Indeed many of the difficulties facing the modern fan; from high ticket prices to inconsiderate rescheduling to suit television, stem from this misconception that fans are to be treated as customers. Unless there is a change in this culture, it is unlikely that the situation for supporters will improve.
The campaign to make clubs pledge to pay a living wage, directed by Rhys Moore, has received a slightly circumspect reaction from clubs. Perhaps surprisingly, Chelsea were the first club to sign up to pay all full time staff the stated £9.15 per hour. Credit to Chelsea for leading the way on this, even if you suspect the club used the issue as a tool to improve their rather poor public image (unfairly gained or not). Manchester United have just this week joined them in making the promise, while Liverpool and Manchester City have verbally expressed support, as have West Ham United and Everton.
Premier League Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore gave an unsatisfactory diplomatic response to the question, saying “At the end of the day there’s a thing called the living wage but there’s also a minimum wage, and politicians do have the power to up that minimum wage. That’s entirely for the politicians to do, that’s not for us to do.” Scudamore fails to comprehend how Premier League clubs are in the luxurious financial position to make a statement on this issue. Paying employees the living wage is not going to solve the housing problem, or deal with high utility costs and rail fares to ease the cost of living, but it would be a symbolic gesture to show that clubs care. It’s good PR if nothing else.
Though it may be true that the clubs who have failed to come forward on the living wage issue are motivated by sheer avarice, there are some complicating factors. Much of the match day work, such as catering, is sub contracted by clubs to other companies. This would make the enforcement of a living wage rule rather more complicated and means that these contractors must be included in discussions. Moore stated last month that “the vast majority of low-paid work in the Premier League is with subcontractors. This commitment doesn’t address that, which is why we think living wage accreditation is so important. The commitment Chelsea made to become the only accredited living wage employer in the Premier League goes so much further than this.”
Moreover, even the clubs who were quick to express support did so on the proviso that a living wage was to be paid to full time staff. Given that stadia might only be used once a fortnight for matches, it is fair to assume that a proportion of the paid work is on a part time basis. Another political football, zero hour contracts, could further complicate matters and provide a possible loophole for clubs wishing to avoid paying staff the living wage. It remains to be seen whether this perilous form of labour will be tackled post-election, but it will be something to keep a close eye on in relation to the living wage campaign.
By the time the new TV deal kicks in, the 20 Premier League clubs will be among the 30 richest clubs in Europe. They will all be capable of matching the living wage criteria without having to increase ticket prices or scale back on players’ wages. The biggest clubs won’t even notice the small loss of the extra money it will cost them. A commitment to pay a living wage won’t transform the lives of those who work for football clubs, but it would be a step toward forging a closer connection between clubs and their local communities. It might also prompt a change in thought about how they view supporters; not as customers but as custodians and an essential part of the club’s fabric. Supporters wanting lower ticket prices and campaigners wanting clubs to pay a living wage should organise together.