We’ve never met but we do have a special connection because, as an Arsenal season-ticket holder, in a small way I help to pay your wages.
Doubtless, as CEO of the fourth most profitable football club in the world, you are handsomely remunerated and I don’t begrudge you a penny as you and the mighty Arsène try to create a sustainable football club that pays its own bills. Raised as you were in apartheid-era South Africa, by heroic parents fighting against social injustice, you are only too aware that the measure of a person is found in their dignity not their salary.
It’s wages and dignity that I’m dropping you this line about, in particular, a friend of mine, Raja,* who works for you at The Emirates on match days. He serves drinks, prepares meals, does the washing up… whatever he’s asked to do. Take it from me, Raja is a reliable guy who’s overcome some setbacks in life and is now trying to pay all his own bills. You’d like him if you met him, you probably have, without knowing it. You’re kindred spirits: like Arsenal, he’s aiming to become a sustainable economic model.
The trouble is that while Raja takes every shift he can working at The Emirates, he just can’t make ends meet.
In short, he’s trapped in poverty.
He doesn’t face the kind of iniquitous institutional racism that saw your father jailed for opposing it in South Africa but he faces a similar tedious, grinding poverty. The daily depressing detail of working to survive while never being able to thrive.
But unlike many directors of gigantic global brands, you get this stuff. You get that people can’t always haul themselves up by their bootstraps in a society that can appear designed to keep some people down. Drawing on your family’s first-hand experience of poverty in South Africa, you put it lucidly in a recent interview, ‘The big challenge is: ‘How do you give people the opportunity to lift themselves out of that poverty?’
You’ve put your finger on it here Ivan. How does Raja lift himself out of poverty?
Well, as I’ve often told him, Ivan Gazidis can help. You pay the salaries of some of the richest people history has ever seen and fans like me pay some of the highest ticket prices ever known to watch some of the most beautiful football ever played. But your cleaners, catering staff and security teams are often earning around £6.50 per hour, just above the legal minimum of £6.31. In London in 2014, you can’t get by on that — that’s why Raja often needs to borrow twenty or thirty quid from his mates, just to tide him over between one week’s bills and the next. To use your own phrase, it’s not enough for people ‘to lift themselves out of poverty’. People like Raja have to take second or third jobs to put food on the table for their families, to buy school uniforms for the kids. They leave the flat early and get home late. Some days they barely see their partners, their children. In the end it saps the life out of you.
Raja would need to work full-time for a decade to earn what the mighty Mezut Özil earns in a week. Now I love Mezut, there are days when I believe one of his passes proves the existence of God. And I’m guessing he’d help Raja himself if he bumped into him — but that would be charity and what Raja needs is justice. And that’s where you come in, just like your parents did when they faced down inequality and injustice all those years ago.
The Living Wage was launched by Citizens UK, an alliance of community groups and parents in East London who found that even working two or three minimum wage jobs they couldn’t make ends meet. The Living Wage is calculated each year according to the basic cost of living. It’s the amount someone needs to get by — holding down one job, instead of two. So they can have a family life, help the kids with their homework, go to the pub, watch the football.
In London it’s set at £8.80 an hour. It’s a couple of quid more than the minimum wage — a couple of quid that, over a week, can lift a family out of working poverty. A couple of quid to transform life for thousands of people.
Arsenal fans have been trying for a while to get the club to introduce the Living Wage for employees like cleaners, catering staff and stewards but as you pointed out, when someone raised it at the AGM, ‘The London Living Wage is well intentioned but the issue is complex and political and, in any case, the Arsenal benefits packages are generous in market terms.’
You’re wrong and you’re right Ivan. You’re wrong that it’s complex. Signing Mezut Özil is complex. Getting planning permission to build The Emirates stadium is complex. A Santi Cazorla dribble is complex. This, in contrast, is simple. The sums involved are peanuts compared to the deals we’re hoping you strike over the summer to get us a goal-scoring partner for Giroud, a scary midfield destroyer and a right back who’ll settle for the wages Bacary Sagna is struggling on.
But you’re right that it’s political.
As your parents taught you, it’s politics that changes the world. And in football as you’ve said yourself, ‘what we do is more important than sport’. You recognise how ‘football has been able to take a leadership position’ on racism and you want it to lead in ‘other issues like homophobia’. Helping low-paid stewards and cleaners and catering staff get a foothold in society through a Living Wage is precisely one of those ‘other issues’.
All that has to happen here is for Arsenal Football Club to get on the right side of history because, as David Cameron puts it, the Living Wage is ‘an idea whose time has come’. City accountants KPMG are backing it (‘extra wage costs are more than met by lowered recruitment churn and absenteeism, greater loyalty, and higher morale leading to better performance’) and Mayor Boris Johnson has written to you and every Premiership boss asking for clubs to introduce it. More than 500 London companies, with a workforce of a quarter of a million, are now Living Wage Employers. Schools, city firms, small businesses — but no Premiership football club. Yet.
Looking out on the fans from the open-topped bus through Islington on Sunday, when we’ve added our tenth trophy in nine years (obviously I count Champions League qualification as a trophy so that’s nine Arsène has won us since the 2005 FA Cup) Aaron and Wojciech and the BFG might notice a small, well-behaved and very polite demo asking the club to adopt the Living Wage. How about surprising everyone? How about the team have their own banner ready which reads, ‘Arsenal — Living Wage Employers, Premiership Leaders Again’
Once we’ve done it, the rest of the Premiership will follow quicker than Man City trying to buy our best players. It would transform the quality of life for thousands of people. As you say yourself, it’s all about moral clarity… and then doing something about it.
‘I give my parents massive, massive credit, first to have the moral clarity in that environment to see how pernicious that system was but, even more, to do something about it against all their own self-interests. I do ask myself: ‘Would I act in that way?’
Thanks for reading Ivan, see you at Wembley and don’t forget about the new striker.
yours in the name of Arsène
(PS If this has made you really cross, please don’t cancel my season ticket.)
(* I changed my friends name to ‘Raja’ as he didn’t want to be identified.)
LIFE, DEATH, FOOTBALL & FRIENDSHIP — something else I wrote about football.