Where are the stewards? What do you expect for the money?

Date published: Monday 12th March 2018 9:04

It takes a lot of unseen and unheralded people to put on a football match. Everyone from the ground staff, to the catering people, the club shop staff, the office admin, cleaners, security and stewards. They all come together to make sure we can turn up, watch the football and go back home to our loved ones safely without anything hanging off, bruised or worse.

As the unpleasant events unfolded at West Ham United on Saturday, the people I felt most sorry for were not the players, the officials, directors or owners, it was the stewards, because they’re always the ones that seem to get the blame from not stopping fans getting on the pitch. But in reality, it’s not their job to grab the crazy dude with the corner flag who suddenly thinks he’s an East End version of Graeme Souness in Fenerbahce.

The people charged with catching and detaining such pitch invaders are the security, often euphemistically called ‘response’ teams. They’re usually on the same money as stewards, but presumably can run faster and know how to do a rugby tackle.

If things really kick off big style and there looks to be widespread unrest, as on Saturday, it’s plod’s turn to swing into action. Pre-Hillsborough, games were heavily policed and stewards were few or non-existent. These days, a light-policing heavy-stewarding policy is deployed. So given the modern-day importance of the hi-viz jacket brigade, here’s my question: why are they paid so damn poorly? Further still, why are so many of Premier League club’s staff paid so poorly at a time of huge wealth?

Outside of London, typically stewards and security staff get between £7 and £9 per hour, in other words pretty much between the minimum and national living wage, or as we might more accurately call it, absolute bloody bobbins. Given that you are only going to get perhaps four hours of work every other week, it’s hardly the sort of income that would encourage you to be fully committed to the cause. Those that do the work regularly do it as much for just being involved in their local club as the cash. But let’s not ignore the fact that as Saturday showed, they’re very much on the front line and yet, as is so often the case for front-line troops, they get the least money.

But if you watch any number of the FA videos which talk about how match days are policed, they clearly want the role of steward to be taken very seriously. If you want to work regularly in the industry, you can get a Level 2 NVQ Certificate in Spectator Safety which deals with all the issues that can arise in a ground full of people.

Stewards are charged by the Football Safety Officers Association with being the deliverers of match-day security and safety, so we should insist they are paid a wage commensurate with that responsibility. What’s more, all workers should be able, if they want, to belong to a union, whether indirectly or directly contracted to the club, to prevent further exploitation of labour by use of collective bargaining. This used to be a basic tenet of employment.

But part of the problem is that in most, if not all, cases, the security and stewarding contracts will be put out to tender and that usually means the lowest bid will win. The clubs can then claim it’s down to the firm they employ to pay stewards properly, when in reality they’re just getting the service on the cheap, despite being awash with money.

They could easily stipulate that the winning bidder has to meet a specific wage. That they don’t speaks badly of them. The same situation almost always applies to everything that needs doing, be it serving tea, chips, selling programmes or cleaning toilets.

As of March last year only Everton and Chelsea had signed up to the Living Wage Foundation to pay the Real Living Wage of £8.75 regionally and £10.25 in London. There are two things to say about that – firstly that is still absolutely, disgustingly low and secondly, it only applies to people the club pays directly; it doesn’t apply to contracted companies who operate within the club.

And yet still, whenever incidents like West Ham happen, I hear “where are the stewards?” Well, if I’m just getting paid buttons, I’m not taking on one of the West Ham Inter City Firm, am I? In fact, I’d be going in the opposite direction at speed. Sod you and your tenner, I’m off. The security team finally retrieved the pitch invaders after a struggle, doubtless feeling that was a lot of hard work for their 40 quid pay day, particularly when the club where you’re working has – like no other privately owned business in society – a guaranteed £100 million income before a ball is kicked…but only as long as you and your co-workers turn up and do your job.

Low pay is a chronic problem in the UK and it’s one that we all pay for via various benefits and tax credits that need to be paid to those whose wages are not high enough for basic survival. And that’s before we get to the costs to the NHS of depression and illness and other knock-on conditions that are a direct consequence of poverty.

The vast majority of benefits are paid to people who are in work. In other words, people on not much money are subsidising rich people and their businesses. We’re bailing out their meanness.

Paying decent wages has been proven to improve productivity and reduce absenteeism, but more than that, it is absolutely immoral that those whose work facilitates the generation of such huge money are the ones to financially benefit least.

As much as the clubs would love us not to realise this fact, it isn’t the players or managers who get a club into the Premier League or keep it there. No, it is the staff who operate the club and make it run. They’re the people who get the club into a position of having a £100 million guaranteed income. Without those people, you could have the best footballers ever, but they’d never play, because the game could not happen. If those people withdrew their labour, there is no game going to be played today, tomorrow, or ever. Grass uncut. No food, no security, no-one selling tickets, no-one doing anything. End of. What are you going to do now, eh? The machine only works because of its cogs.

So where are the stewards, you say? Beating on the owners’ door along with all other low-paid staff, demanding more money, I hope. And if they don’t get it, going on strike. They’d have a lot of support from fans who already feel cheated, robbed and exploited by their club, and I bet from many players who would happily give money to a strike fund. It’s time we got serious about this. It’s not like clubs can’t afford it, they just don’t want to afford it, which means they are treating their workers with horrible contempt.

If there was an all-out and solid strike across all workers at all clubs, united as one, it’d only take one game being postponed until the owners would cave and you’d see wages increased dramatically across all clubs. The irony is, the clubs stand to lose a lot, but poorly paid workers stand to lose literally very little.

It is sickening that the owners of a club like West Ham are sitting there like modern-day emperors looking down on the revolting hordes and expecting to be protected from their rage by people who have even more of a grievance for so brazenly keeping them in penury. They’re lucky their protectors might have less money but better morals.

John Nicholson


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