Making grooms’ working lives better – what can be done?

  • THE question of what more can be done to raise the profile of grooms, their value and their working conditions has come to the fore, as more examples of illegal employment surface, especially at competition yards.

    H&H reported on the debate at the National Equine Forum (NEF) on the skills shortage, and how major change is needed to ensure a sustainable workforce (news, 10 March). H&H has also repeatedly covered the plight of many staff in the sector, which is notorious for its widespread lack of adherence to employment law.

    Repeated surveys have shown many incidences of grooms being paid less than the minimum wage, employed without legal necessities such as contracts and paid holiday, or being told they are self-employed when they are not.

    And although the same studies show that the situation is improving, H&H has heard of many competition yards at which this is not the case.

    One groom, who did not want to be named, told H&H she worked +70-hour weeks for £200 in an eventing yard. She was not on the books and did not have paid holiday, or even regular days off, a contract or other legal requirements. She left to work in racing, where everything is above board, and she is paid two to three times as much, for fewer hours.

    “It’s no wonder competition yards can’t get anyone,” she said.

    She said in her previous job the day started at 7am and finished 10 to 12 hours later, with lunch eaten on her feet, and no time to ride her own horse, whose feed, hay and bedding she had to fund.

    She says although there are good employers, much of the industry has to change.

    “It needs to be regulated; it’s not legal to do what I experienced,” she said. “People have to be on the books, and have time off and be cared about. How do they get away with it?

    “People have to wake up and realise that times have changed, and the industry can’t keep on as it is. Of course there are bad employees too, and some people are lazy and don’t want to work, but for every one I’ve met like that, there are about five that are really good – and those are the ones who will go elsewhere.

    “I think if a lot of riders had more respect for their grooms and were grateful for them, the industry would be a better place.”

    Another former eventing groom who contacted H&H worked at two yards that paid £100 for +70-hour weeks, and one rider’s attitude was that she was privileged to work for him.

    She said she would start work at 6.30am, be “lucky to have 20 minutes for breakfast or time to eat a whole sandwich at lunch”, and often finish late, especially during the eventing season. Working extra hours to pack the lorry was not uncommon, followed by a 3.30am departure from the yard the next morning.

    “There was never any discussion about hours,” she told H&H. “It was a case of, ‘You’re being paid £100 a week as that’s all we can afford.’ I got accommodation but at one yard, that was a mould-filled room, and at the other I lived on site so on days off the rider would wake me up to go to the gallops.”

    She left when she was offered a £10 per week pay rise, and now works in healthcare, where she says she is valued and paid appropriately.

    “If the horseworld paid properly and valued people, I would never have left it,” she said. “It was, ‘You should be grateful to work for me,’ but they should be grateful to have us. I’ve come back from competitions where the rider has won decent money and we’d be eating fish fingers and beans because we weren’t paid.”

    The groom added that the industry has to change.

    “It’s no wonder it’s in the crisis it’s in,” she said.

    British Grooms Association and Equestrian Employers Association founder Lucy Katan told H&H that in general, riding schools and livery yards are now more likely to be compliant with employment law; some competition yards less so.

    “Here’s some interesting maths,” she said.

    “The minimum wage goes up to £9.50 per hour on 1 April and event grooms often work minimum 60 hours a week, certainly in competition season, when it can be 70 or 80. For 70 hours, that’s £34,500 per year.”

    At the NEF, Ms Katan said some yards need to reevaluate working practices, as current ones do not fit a viable business model. This will become more apparent when the minimum wage goes up again, as promised, to £10 next year, and £10.50 in 2024.

    She constantly sees and hears of bad employment practices.

    “It’s astonishing these riders choose to go ahead; there is no excuse any more.” she said. “Is this the time we start seeing more advocates? What else can we do to raise the profile of grooms and good employment?”

    Jenny Shotton, who has worked in HR for years, and as a freelance groom, can see the issue from both perspectives. Her daughter Izzy events and is on an apprenticeship scheme.

    “She couldn’t do her GCSEs because of Covid so I said she might as well do her riding instead of sitting there being miserable,” Jenny told H&H. “It was amazing for her and that’s one real positive of the industry, from a mental health perspective, it can be very positive, but also damaging.”

    Jenny believes the “money isn’t important because you love horses” attitude is “doing the industry a disservice”, and that the sector has plenty of opportunities to change. But she also believes there are issues on both sides.

    “It’s not always about bad employers; I’ve seen students come straight from college who don’t know one end of a horse from the other and can’t hack it,” she said. “But on the other hand, the minimum wage is a legal requirement and if you can’t pay that, you shouldn’t be employing staff. Where do we go from here? It’s attitude, on both sides.”

    By the book

    Of course, there are competition riders who are exemplary employers, not just because they comply with all the relevant laws.

    One of these is eventing European champion Nicola Wilson, who told H&H she engages an expert to ensure contracts, pensions and tax are dealt with.

    “I just want it to be right and I don’t have experience with those thing so feel happier if this is taken care of for me,” said Nicola. “Yes it costs, but I have confidence they know what they are doing.

    “We’re all in it together, we’re a team, and it’s so important we all look after each other. I respect everyone who works for me immensely, and value what they do for me and the horses.”

    Nicola said her team works well together, and she “couldn’t do anything I’ve done without them”, adding that it is important her staff have at least a day and a half off each week to themselves.

    “I appreciate everything they do, their love for the horses, their support and dedication,” she said. “I’m very flattered that my name has been mentioned as a good employer, and I hope the girls on the yard think that’s valid. I value and respect them enormously and am grateful for what they do.”

    An HMRC spokesman told H&H: “All businesses, irrespective of size or sector, are responsible for paying the correct minimum wage. HMRC won’t hesitate to act to ensure that workers receive what they are legally entitled to.

    “Consequences for not complying can include fines of 200% of the arrears, public naming and, for the worst offences, criminal prosecution.”

    • What do you think about the staffing issue? Send your thoughts to hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and country, and you could win a bottle of Champagne Taittinger

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