Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Union turns sights to stable lads

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

The T&G union is launching a drive to improve pay and conditions for stable "lads and lasses" on the day the British Horseracing Board has its award ceremony for the industry's footsoldiers.

Race horse
The T&G believes the industry's footsoldiers need more support

The media spotlight is on the industry after the suicides of a number of stable lads in the Suffolk racing town of Newmarket.

With its 122-a-week starting salary and its 5am starts, working in a racing yard, mucking out and riding horses, is a hard job.

Former stable lad Paul Shaw, 56, left racing eight years ago, but is still obsessed with horses.

"I was always pony mad. I would walk miles to ride somebody's pony. A love of horses never goes away. I still look at them and admire them."

'Just a number'

Mr Shaw, who supports the T&G's campaign, joined as a 14-year-old apprentice in 1964, learning his trade for five years on 10 shillings a week, before earning the then starting-wage of 5 a week.

"Racing then was not a factory. We would only do two or three horses. But they were done perfectly and immaculately. The workload now has gone up.

"You will find your average lad is doing a minimum of four and in some places a lot more.

I believe the money is there but it isn't coming down to the stable lads
Paul Shaw

"With the apprenticeships, very few people made it as a jockey, but you could work for anybody. I rode in Norway as a jockey and I worked in France.

"It is not the same now.

"Because [stable lads] have never done an apprenticeship, they are falling into the deep end, but they never really go on and improve from that."

Although wages have improved, they remain extremely low in a country where property prices have rocketed.

The racing industry's own Stable and Stud Staff Commission noted in 2004 that the minimum wage for the most experienced category of stable lad, for a 45-hour week, was 20 less than for someone stacking shelves in a supermarket.

Mr Shaw, who ended his 30-year career with take-home pay of 160 a week, said there was also a downward pressure on wages for British stable lads from an influx of foreign, and often East European, labour.

A very small minority of people complain about wages in the racing industry
Stable Lads Association

"There are a few [British lads] who stay, but now the majority of the lads, once they get married, want to buy their own house. They could never do it on a racing wage.

"Their only way out was to go into some kind of industry. I think they need to be treated better. The system has gone wrong.

"These guys will come in from abroad and they will work any hours God sends. The job is probably easier than what they are used to.

"I've worked for three or four cracking trainers, but these days the lads are just a number. They are there to do a job, like you would be on a conveyor belt."

Different concerns

The T&G - the Transport and General Workers' Union - campaign is being masterminded by Maggie Bremner, herself a "stable lass" for 13 years.

The union wants to recruit stable lads and lasses in the belief that the industry-funded Stable Lads Association is not doing an adequate job of fighting for increased pay and better conditions.

Ms Bremner said staff were regularly sacked for being injured, with female staff particularly falling victim to discrimination and ill-treatment.

She also said she had witnessed stable staff being assaulted.

Best Mate in stable
The Stable Lads Association has been working to improve facilities

"I saw one girl being punched in the face by an assistant trainer. A lad at one yard fell off his horse, refused to ride it, and the trainer broke down his door and beat him up.

"The racing industry doesn't stop this."

A spokesman for the Stable Lads Association refused to comment on the T&G's recruitment drive of its members but dismisses the notion that poor pay is a burning issue in the industry.

"A very small minority of people complain about wages in the racing industry," he said.

"It is the only equestrian industry that has a minimum wage - 95% of the trainers pay above that."

Of far greater concern was the standard of hostel accommodation and the standards of facilities when stable lads were away working at racecourses, both of which were improving following work by the association, he said.

Pay is also supplemented by a share of prize money for stable lads, although the industry's commission admits there are complaints over the fairness of how this is distributed.

Career path

Fiona Goss, 52, is another supporter of the T&G's campaign, having left racing five years ago, after starting at the age of 20.

To her the association is too influenced by owners and trainers.

It is not a good way to live. They give you 40 minutes to muck out five horses and get your first lot tacked up
Fiona Goss

"It doesn't represent your stable lads that get up at 5am," she said.

And she believes racing is going to remain a hard life for those working in it.

"It is not a good way to live. They give you 40 minutes to muck out five horses and get your first lot tacked up.

"It's starting at 5am and coming back at 2am [some days]. They have got these forms where you fill it in when you start and when you finish, but you do not get an overtime rate. They tippex it out.

"If you are a woman you've got no chance. It is just basically sexist."

Horse race
Career progression is a thorny issue in the industry

And the issue of a career path is a thorny one in an industry where staff are still referred to as lads and lasses in their 30s, 40s and even 50s.

Mr Shaw said: "The average sportsman, they are over the hill at 35, but of the racing lads I know, there are people at 60 still riding out.

"You could end up head lad, but there is only one at each yard. You could go back to being a yard man [mucking out and cleaning but not riding] but you are looked down on.

"Trainers are making a lot of money. It is a multi-million pound industry. I believe the money is there but it isn't coming down to the stable lads. It is going to the jockeys and the trainers."

Subtle pressure can be applied by unscrupulous trainers, Mr Shaw added.

"If you are a travelling head lad, or you are looking after a decent animal, there are a lot of ways a trainer can get rid of you if he thinks you are going into a union.

"I've seen people fall off and do themselves an injury and they have sat him on a bale of straw and carried on. If you are off sick you are unlikely to get sick pay."

Good practice

The Stable and Stud Staff Commission said many yards were already examples of good practice.

But it admitted: "The reality is that some staff have to contend with poor pay and long hours, inadequate training, scant recognition of their efforts and limited long-term career prospects."

It is likely to remain an arduous job, populated by hardy people motivated by their love of horses.

Mr Shaw retains his fondness for the animals, but now works a world away in a secure forensic psychiatry unit, often dealing with criminals.

"A lot of people think it's a dangerous job, but it's not half as dangerous as racing."

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