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In the Premier League, there’s money for everything except workers

Clubs spend tens of millions on new players but refuse to pay their staff a living wage.

FILE PICTURE: Alexis Sanchez, who moved to Manchester United from Arsenal this January, is set to earn close to a million dollars a week.
FILE PICTURE: Alexis Sanchez, who moved to Manchester United from Arsenal this January, is set to earn close to a million dollars a week.

For fans of the English Premier League, January is action-packed. For one month, mid-season, the transfer market is open, meaning that clubs can go out and spend exorbitant fees on players they hope will improve their league fortunes. Those at the top shell out tens of millions of pounds in the hopes of clinching a Champions League qualification spot, while those at the bottom desperately search for reinforcements in order to stave off relegation.

In this season’s transfer window, which closed yesterday amid much fanfare, records were once again smashed, with an astonishing $610 million spent over the past month. Among the big spenders were Arsenal, who paid $80 million for the Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; Liverpool, who bought the towering Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk for $100 million; and Barcelona, who bought Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool for a staggering $200 million.

If those numbers strike you as excessive, remember that the Premier League sold television rights to its games in 2015 in a three-year deal worth $7.3 billion — with a b. The sheer scale of the money now involved in English soccer means that clubs can not only spend tens of millions on transfer fees, but can afford to pay their players ludicrous salaries. One of those high-earners is Alexis Sanchez, the mercurial Chilean superstar who moved to Manchester United this month, where he is set to earn close to $1,000,000 a week.

But for those working at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s famous stadium, Sanchez’s salary is a slap in the face. While the club can afford to lavish him with hundreds of thousands of pounds every week, it refuses to pay the stewards, caters and cleaners more than minimum wage. The club’s hypocrisy was laid bare in an open letter delivered to Manchester United’s Vice Chairman Ed Woodward by the charity Citizens UK. “We know from speaking to match day staff that some young people are paid less than £7 ($10) per hour and are struggling to make ends meet,” the letter read. “Why not extend the beliefs of the Manchester United Foundation…. to supporting your low paid workers and their families with a wage rate that truly reflects the cost of living in our city?”

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According to Citizens UK, it would take someone earning minimum wage at Old Trafford (roughly $21,000 annually) 41 years to equal what Sanchez takes home in a week. Put another way, it takes Sanchez roughly half of one game of football to earn what a caterer at Old Trafford makes in a year. “Not only is Manchester United turning a blind eye to the harsh realities faced by the undervalued low-paid staff it employs, the club seemingly has a bottomless pit to pay players,” Neil Jameson, executive director of Citizens UK, told the Daily Telegraph. 

But Manchester United isn’t the only soccer giant refusing to pay its staff a living wage, generally accepted to mean a wage high enough to maintain a normal standard of living in their community. Of the 20 Premier League clubs, only three — West Ham, Chelsea and Everton — pay their employees a living wage. Liverpool has pledged to introduce the real living wage for its workers in 2018, while Manchester City is reported to be on the cusp of introducing it as well. However, as an October League Table by Citizens UK shows, the vast majority of clubs have yet to embrace it. This is particularly damaging for Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Watford, who languish at the bottom of the table noting lowest hourly salaries despite being based in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities to work and live in.

Whether the rest of the Premier League will follow along in giving their employees a salary they can actually live on remains to be seen — and with Amazon bidding for rights to stream matches next season, it doesn’t look like the money will stop flowing in anytime soon. But the shocking wealth disparity on display between the players and club workers only reflects the wider issue of inequality, which plagues both Europe and the U.S. — where, last year, CEOs took home roughly 276 times what a typical American worker earned.

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“Modern football clubs are run on the Downton Abbey model. Upstairs the aristocrats have so much money they hardly know what to do with it. They can fritter it away on gambling, property, yachts, any mad old thing which takes their fancy,” author Eamonn Sweeney writes in the Irish Times.”Downstairs the servants scrape by on a pittance.”