‘Dear Alexis Sánchez…’
A letter to a great footballer who escaped poverty — about the working poverty of low-paid staff at Arsenal.
First up… thanks.
For bringing a touch of jinking, swerving, dribbling magic to the Premiership.
For your furious passion to win.
For signing for the Arsenal.
For all the goals… already.
Many people say that you and Angel di Maria at Man Utd are the signings of the season. But apart from the fact you play for the better team, that thing you do with your shorts before a free kick will always give you the edge.
But this isn’t about that.
This is about the cleaners. The people you bump into most days at The Emirates or training at London Colney.
Maybe some days they remind you of the first cleaner you knew, your mother Martina, working all the hours God sent in your home town of Tocopilla, in rural Chile.
Humberto, your brother, says that even though you’ve become one of the world’s great footballers, you’ll never forget your childhood in that small mining town. How your dad walked out when you were a toddler leaving your mother alone, to raise you and him, and your sisters Tamara and Marjorie. As a six year old you were on the street earning cash to help make ends meet.
He would wash cars for a few pence or perform somersaults for a handful of coins from onlookers. He was like a little gymnast, hurling himself all over the place.
‘The neighbours would give him a few coins for entertaining them. Sometimes he was so hungry he would knock on neighbours’ doors and ask for bread. On occasions Alexis would box in the street for entertainment.’
And you described in a film how your mother became a cleaner at your school. ‘When she was cleaning in the school I hid because I didn’t like to see her there.’
Her wages weren’t enough to support the family. She had to take on other jobs — washing fish for neighbours or selling flowers.
You were so good with a football you were known as ‘El Nino Maravilla’ – the ‘Wonder Kid’ — and you promised your mother you would ‘get us out of this situation’.
You kept your promise and fulfilled that dream… but your story is rare.
Other talented kids, playing barefoot on the same local streets, didn’t make it.
Not many escape poverty through sporting genius.
Most people need a fair wage for a fair days work.
That’s why I wanted you to know that while you’ve signed for a great club with fine traditions — including exemplary work in the local community — Arsenal have a bit of a problem.
And it’s the cleaners who can tell you about it.
Although this is one of the world’s richest clubs and season tickets are the most expensive in the Premiership, Arsenal’s directors don’t believe they can afford to pay their cleaners a living wage.
Or matchday stewards. Or security staff. Or those serving hot dogs or beer at the bar.
Hundreds of low paid staff on contract with Arsenal have to make a life in one of the world’s most expensive cities on £6.50 an hour. It’s impossible and, like your mum, they have to take on second jobs, or third jobs.
Up early, home late. Some days never seeing the kids.
I know this from my friend Raja who works for Arsenal on match days. I wrote about him to Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s CEO, who pays everyone’s wages. I asked Ivan to get the club to adopt the Living Wage, calculated each year according to the basic cost of living. It’s the amount someone needs to get by on if they’re holding down one job, instead of two. So they can have a family life, help the kids with homework, go to the pub, watch the football.
In London the Living Wage is £8.80 an hour. That’s a couple of quid more than the legal minimum wage, a couple of quid that, over time, can lift a family out of working poverty. A couple of quid to transform life for thousands of people.
Lots of fans, including The Arsenal Independent Supporters Association , think the club should lead the way and become the first in the Premiership to introduce the Living Wage. Fans are asking Arsenal to take a lead.
If they did, other clubs would follow, and thousands of families would benefit. The Living Wage is already going mainstream. A year ago 400 UK companies had committed to it — today it’s nearly 1,000.
After I dropped my letter to Ivan around to The Emirates, I published it here and 15,000 people read it. Ivan’s mum and dad were activist heroes in apartheid South Africa so he has an idea of what life is like for people on low incomes. Many people wanted to read his reply to my letter but so far he hasn’t come up with one.
At the Arsenal AGM a few days ago Ivan said a Living Wage was a decision for government. This is not an argument he ever uses about ticket prices. But anyway, the Prime Minister David Cameron already backs the Living Wage and so does Labour leader Ed Milliband.
‘Paying the Living Wage is not only morally right,’ says Mayor of London Boris Johnson, ‘It makes good business sense too.’
Ivan tells campaigners that it’s all a bit ‘complex’ — the club employ cleaners and catering people through other companies. But so do hundreds of other major corporations. HSBC, for example, one of the UK’s biggest banks has just agreed to pay all 45,000 staff the living wage — permanent staff, contract staff or temporary staff.
They’re not waiting to follow government, they’ve decided to take the lead. Like Hearts FC in Scotland, announcing at their AGM that ‘we propose to implement the nationally-approved Living Wage, across all staff, including part-time and contract workers.’
Alexis, you recently donated £160,000 to replace five football pitches in Tocopilla.
That sort of generosity transforms life in a local community but decent wages changes life for an entire society.
And what Arsenal’s cleaners and caterers need is justice.
A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work.
A living wage.
I wondered if you could remind Ivan and Arsène Wenger and the club directors what it’s like to live with the powerlessness of poverty. How trapped you can be when you work hard but still don’t earn enough to change your circumstances.
Many people think the living wage is an idea whose time has come — and now is the moment for Arsenal to show moral leadership. As your great Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda put it: ‘You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.’
After only two months with the club, your drive and determination on the pitch make it clear you want Arsenal to be winners. If you could help the Arsenal board see how important it is to put everyone who works for them on a living wage the club would win something more significant than any cup or league.
Even by the standards of ‘El Nino Maravilla’, that would be seriously wonderful.
Thanks for reading Alexis
PS When Ivan didn’t reply, I wrote to Arsene, your manager, our hero. He’s a trained economist who knows all about recruiting great staff and paying decent wages. He hasn’t replied either. He’s probably focussed on the salary of that defender we need in January but if you could remind him…