Is £300 a week a fair wage for stable staff?

Wage levels are top of the agenda for George McGrath, new chief executive of The National Association of Stable Staff (NASS). McGrath claims that stable staff are so poorly paid that even those with most experience are often dependant on the tax credit system to top up their wages.

McGrath was elected to the post last week. Although he had an absolute majority over the other two candidates, fewer than 10% of the 3,000 or so members of NASS actually voted. It’s this kind of apathy that is likely to prove the greatest barrier to NASS achieving its medium term goal in relation to pay.

Last year NASS submitted a claim to increase wages by October 2013 to the mid point between those of skilled craft workers and manual jobs such as waiters, cleaners and postal workers. It claimed that stable staff have fallen so far behind other groups that it would take a 60% wage increase to reach this goal.

McGrath explained further. He said that structural constraints in the industry, which require a total of seven years experience, five of them with the same stable, meant that few people ever reached the top grade at the moment.

He said, “Even if you do reach that level, you’re only guaranteed to earn a couple of pence more than £300 a week for a 12 and a half day fortnight and that’s really not a lot. It’s a disgrace that you have thousands of highly skilled professionals in full-time work who are earning so little that they require their wages to be topped up with working tax credits.”

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Despite these obvious concerns, there’s no suggestion of seeking any form of industrial action. It probably wouldn’t be supported anyway, as for many stable staff the pleasure and reward they get from looking after “their” horse is a huge reward in itself. McGrath says he’s looking for conciliation in discussion with the National Trainers’ Federation (N.T.F.). He says, “You can’t squeeze blood out of a stone and there’s nothing to be gained by trying to force trainers who are already on a financial knife-edge to pay more to their staff. I don’t want to put trainers out of business, as that just leads to more unemployment in the sport.”

Of course he’ll welcome an increase in basic rates, but you sense that he also has an eye on changing some of those structural inhibitors. “We all want racing to improve and I believe that encouraging stable staff to remain in the sport rather than forcing them out of it is part of that bigger picture.”

One anomaly that truly astonished me is that despite an increase in the overtime rate to £6.50 an hour last year, it remains lower than the basic pay. How backwards way round is that?

For its part, the N.T.F. was non-committal about any changes. Their chief executive, Rupert Arnold, said, “Trainers do their best to offer attractive wages in order to employ the best possible staff that they can bit, in terms of the detail, we’re looking forward to sitting down with NASS as soon as possible to examine the situation.”

McGrath says that he has always been interested in politics and racing politics. He’s clearly aware that in the pay arena there are several balls to juggle with, and it will take a fair bit of political nous to get the best deal for his members.

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