TIME and again, Ian Bankier, the Celtic chairman, pleaded with them to drop the subject and move on, but for the two hours and more that it took to complete the club’s annual general meeting yesterday, they just wouldn’t let it lie.
The Living Wage. It has become such a cause célèbre with disaffected shareholders that the guardians of a club which prides itself on diversity, inclusivity and a charitable commitment to alleviating poverty were showing unmistakable signs of exasperation.
After the controversy of a year ago, when they refused outright to become an accredited Living-Wage employer, a step that would oblige them to pay their staff at least £7.58 an hour, Bankier and his colleagues arrived at Celtic Park with a plan designed to head off any rebellion at the pass.
In response to a resolution by the club’s Supporters Trust, which proposed that the club sign up to the Living Wage campaign, they said that they would begin a consultation process with permanent staff about increasing their hourly rate to the aforementioned figure.
What they would not do is become an accredited Living Wage employer, a step that would cost them around £350,000 a year. They could not, as a body with corporate responsibilities, allow their workers’ salaries to be determined by a third party other than the government, which demands a minimum wage of £6.50 an hour for those aged over 21.
While Jeanette Findlay, of the Supporters Trust, was briefly appeased by the development, it didn’t last long. She was soon pointing out that 10,000 people had signed a petition demanding that the club sign up to the campaign. Someone else stood up to say that club’s position on the issue was “scandalous”. Another pointed out that if Hearts – in administration last year – could do it, why not Celtic?
By the time a floor of some 400 shareholders had dispersed, and Bankier had joined chief executive Peter Lawwell in a post-agm meeting with the media, it was clear that their patience was running out. Asked again about the issue, Bankier began: “I emphatically understand why fans and shareholders think this club should be leading the way. But nonetheless we have a corporate responsibility to manage this club the best way possible.
“What we would do with that mantle on us is call on government to sort this thing out. We shouldn’t be put in the position we are put in. This is a hot potato for government and the current administration should be picking it up. Why is there such a difference – a 20 per cent difference – between a Living Wage and the government? Explain it to us. Help us out here. We don’t want to be the subject of this kind of criticism because it’s not us – we don’t wear these clothes at all well.”
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Lawwell went a step further. He said that Celtic had “a very satisfied, highly motivated workforce who are content with their lot”. He also pointed out that the club were one of only three in the UK to have Investors in People status. Their staff’s working conditions, he said, compared favourably with those of Sports Direct, owned by Rangers powerbroker Mike Ashley, who has been criticised for the company’s zero-hours contracts.
Asked why Celtic had agreed only to increase the pay of permanent employees, Lawwell replied: “We see the casual workers as an entirely different category. They are not looking to Celtic for their primary source of income. We are looking at permanent employees – and that includes everybody apart from matchday staff, for whom we are largely a secondary income. There are 180 of them, mainly in retail – which is a very competitive business. Ironically, the competitor is Sports Direct and we are getting the spotlight.
“We are a club which has a social conscience and does more in our community than any other football club. It’s who we are, it’s what we do and we have the facts to prove it. We are good employers – but we listen to our supporters and we are going to do something about it.
“We have been used. Our club has been used over this campaign by politicians and others. They have hitched their wagon to Celtic for the profile of their own political agenda. It’s quite disappointing.
“There is more and more evidence of poverty in society and inequality and we would urge the people with the power and opportunity to change it and not hitch their wagon to Celtic for political purposes. We are a football club. We will do all we can in the community. But we can’t change government policy. Is the government wage going up? We urge them to look at that if that is the right thing to do.”
All of which melodrama would be embarrassing enough for the club were it not also played out against a backdrop of claims that Celtic have been stockpiling money in recent years. At the end of June, they posted profits of £11.2 million, on a turnover of £64.7m, but Lawwell insists that they are not, as some supporters suggest, sitting on “mountains of cash”.
While many fans were frustrated that more was not spent in the transfer market last summer, Lawwell says that, in the current climate, it is more important to secure the club’s long-term future. Celtic have failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League, and every campaign without Rangers in Scotland’s top flight costs them around £10m. They will continue their policy of developing young, under-rated players who can be sold on for a profit.
John Guidetti will be a test of the club’s strategy. The striker who is on a season-long loan from Manchester City has endeared himself to supporters with nine goals already, prompting the club to open discussions about a permanent deal. Ronny Deila, the Celtic manager, says that the transfer fee is “do-able”, but he admitted to shareholders that some of the figures discussed in early negotiations were laughable. Other clubs, including Marseille, are also said to be interested.
“Ronny really wants him,” Lawwell said. “He has lit up the place and we would like to have him. However, he will be in demand and we are talking to his people. Whether he is willing to commit to us now or at the end of the season I don’t know.”
One thing’s for sure: if he signs on the dotted line, he will be earning rather more than the Living Wage.
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