Celtic partly concede to pressure to pay the “Living Wage”

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By Phil Mac Giolla Bhain

Shareholder pressure has forced one of Scotland’s sporting institutions – Celtic Football Club – to back down partly in a two year battle over the “Living Wage”.

Club chairman Ian Bankier signalled a change of heart at the opening of its annual general meeting when he announced that 180 permanent staff currently on the minimum wage can expect their pay to improve to the “living wage” level of £7.85 an hour.

Although the club stopped short of agreeing to become an Accredited Living Wage Employer or applying the higher level to all staff – thereby excluding temporary and match-day workers currently working on minimum wage – today’s decision is seen as significant progress for the Celtic Trust, a supporter’s group which has led the campaign.

In advance papers for the AGM, the board had opposed the whole motion, so the move to grant a rise to 180 permanent staff was clearly made very recently.

The deal is significant because of the continuing campaign to improve wages for low-paid workers across the public and private sectors, with high profile organisations like Celtic targeted by campaigners. The club, founded by Irish priest Brother Walfrid in order to alleviate poverty in Glasgow’s east end, makes much of its charitable work and it was strongly criticised by its own supporters for its previous position on low pay.

A static economy and continuing austerity measures mean that the minimum wage has become a major political issue concerning the “working poor”, many of whom survive on supplementary benefits. Major employers stand accused of effectively expecting the State to top-up low pay.

During the Celtic AGM the board rejected the motion put by a fans group to pay all staff the “Living Wage”.

Following Bankier’s statement to the AGM, Jeannette Findlay of the Celtic Trust said she would dispose of her prepared speech, ceremoniously ripping it up. This was met with applause by the 603 shareholders present.

Findlay described the move as “a very positive first step”. However, she added: “This resolution calls on the board to become an accredited Living Wage Employer. What that means is that they will agree to pay no less that £7.85 per hour to ALL employees regardless of how many hours they work and that they will uprate that amount according to a well-established formula based on the minimum income standards which is published by the Living Wage campaign.”

The Living Wage is based on people’s need to maintain “an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress.”

Findlay commented that men at the top table had looked to be under a bit of pressure themselves, adding: “I am sure that none of you up there want to have any of your employees living any other way. Those of you who were here last year will remember the chairman being forced into the very unenviable position of having to defend what was an indefensible position and in fact the shuffling feet and averted eyes of those at the top table made it clear to me that you were also very uncomfortable with that.”

She believed that Celtic directors, who include several wealthy businessmen, looked more comfortable with the wage concession. However she challenged a statement made by Bankier in a video at the start of the AGM, when he claimed that becoming an accredited living wage employer would effectively mean handing over control of the company’s cost base.

Celtic defends its position on minimum pay and even zero hours contracts for some employees on the basis that they have to compete for business with companies such as Sports Direct, which sells sports merchandise from a very low cost base.

Findlay pointed out that the Celtic board had been “misinformed”, as the Living Wage was capped at “no more than two per cent above the rise  in average earnings”. The body language of the chaps in suits at the top table got even more uncomfortable at this stage. Major companies such as the insurance giant Aviva are Accredited Living Wage Employers.

The Celtic Trust did not stand alone, having attracted 12 requisitions for its motion, and also 1,400 shareholder votes in 2013. Findlay told the AGM that the Trust also had a 10,000-signature petition, at which point applause broke out – and the body language at the top table changed again.

The AGM started to look like a new reality TV show: “I’m a financially comfortable middle aged man in a grey suit get me out of here”.

Findlay congratulated the board for “taking the first step”, but urged them to move to the final stage and become an Accredited Living Wage Employer.

Celtic would be the first Premier League club to endorse the Living Wage, but not the first club in Scotland, as this was achieved by Heart of Midlothian, who adopted it for their staff earlier this year.

She appealed to the club to remove the “meaningless bauble” of an “Investing in People” sign and replace it with a notice that states that “Celtic are an Accredited Living Wage Employer”.

As she walked up to the stage and handed the petition tied up with a red ribbon it didn’t much look like a love letter.

At the post-AGM press conference, Chairman Bankier stated that the cost of implementing the Living Wage would cost the club around £350,000, but that this cost could be as much as £500,000.

The AGM was told that Celtic posted pre-tax profits of £11.2 million.

Chief Executive Peter Lawwell complained to journalists that the Living Wage resolution was being “externally generated” and that the club had very happy employees and that the consultation process would affect 180 employees.

He conceded that the resolution had come from “real emotion” about the club and its values.

Bankier told journalists that the club was being left to deal with something that was really the responsibility of the government.

Many of those in the hall, representing small shareholders all of them committed Celtic supporters, thought that the position of the board was at variance to the ethos of the club’s founder, Brother Walfrid.

A Marist Brother who grew up in County Sligo during the Great Famine he set about establishing Celtic in 1887 for, quite literally, feeding the hungry.

In the age of the food bank, Celtic are happy to state that “charity is part of our DNA” as part of a general branding exercise, which does not extend to its lower-paid staff.

The club defend their reasons, but most of those attending the AGM weren’t buying Celtic’s corporate  Kool-Aid.