Irish racing leaders hit back over cash-in-hand claims
Trainer admits to 'being forced' into the practice with staff
Senior racing figures Brian Kavanagh and Denis Egan have rejected claims made by independent TD Clare Daly in Dail Eireann that “something is very rotten at the heart of Irish racing”.
However, one well-known Irish trainer has validated Daly's assertion that some trainers are operating illegally by paying staff cash as a matter of necessity.
In a leaders’ questions session on Wednesday, Daly asked Taoiseach Enda Kenny to consider a multi-agency "swoop" on the racing industry, and for a confidential hotline to be set up for whistleblowers.
Daly described as a "sham" the recent minimum wage agreement between the Irish Stable Staff Association and the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, which saw the agreed minimum rate rise by €1, or 10.25 per cent, to €10.75 an hour.
She suggested trainers and staff were partaking in “wholesale illegality” by not complying with revenue tax laws.
Daly’s office was contacted by the Racing Post in an effort to substantiate the claims, but no further details have been provided.
Horse Racing Ireland chief executive Kavanagh said he did not accept Daly's points, adding: “There is machinery both within the industry and the state to address [her] concerns.”
Turf Club chief executive Denis Egan also sought to play down the sweeping accusations, saying: “It appears there might be a problem out there, based on Clare Daly’s comments, but the Turf Club is not responsible for ensuring anybody complies with the law of the land.
"We don’t have the power to audit trainers’ records to ensure they are paying the correct wages. There are other state organisations that do have that power.”
However, the ongoing shortage of suitably skilled stable staff is an accepted reality within the industry. IRTA chief executive Michael Grassick could not be contacted for comment, but one trainer, whose stable is one of many that has suffered a significant downturn in fortune, gave credence to Daly’s statement that many staff “are buried in the bowels of the black economy”.
'They know their value'
The trainer, who asked not to be named, said: “I employed 16 people on a full-time basis at my busiest. I now find myself with one. I could do with another, but I can't get somebody of a sufficient standard to ride out.
“I've been forced into a position whereby the only fellas I could get are two former full-time staff of mine. They know their value, don’t want to be paid through the books, and are coming here riding four lots a morning, six mornings a week at €15 a lot."
Elaborating on the situation, he added: “They're getting €360 cash in hand a week and are gone from here by 12pm each day to ride maybe another four lots elsewhere. They might be clearing €700 or €800 cash into their hand every week, and I just can't compete."
Further bemoaning his lot, he said: “Any time I ask them about coming back full-time, they won’t even enter a negotiation with me about it. It’s not an intensive horse training area where I am, so I don’t have options.
“I’d much prefer to be doing things correctly, but I’m looking over my shoulder the whole time and it creates problems, because cash is cash, and I’m not generating cash. I don’t have cash owners. I don’t know if that’s representative of other trainers, but that's my situation."
He added: “A lot of racing staff are transient and they mosey into other industries when the building [work] picks up, which is what happened with the two lads I’m using now.”
A Turf Club appeal
Daly referenced a Turf Club appeal for trainers to furnish the regulator with details of staff income to meet revenue requirements for a submission to set up a new stable staff pension scheme.
The initial appeal for those earning more than €25,000 resulted in just 300 responses, with the number rising to 800 when the earnings figure was reduced to €12,500.
It has been suggested that data protection issues played a part in such a poor response, but Egan indicated there has since been increased take-up.
There is a submission before the revenue department that proposes to ensure all tax-compliant stable staff earning a specific amount, understood to be between €10,000 and €15,000, are eligible for the new pension scheme, which is non-contributory.
“Our website is as secure as it can be, and all we were looking for was to establish who'd be eligible,” Egan explained. “Trainers knew this had to be done and the vast majority – around 90 per cent –have returned the information.
Not 'indentured slaves'
“Most people’s employers have a pension scheme, but this is a pension scheme for every employee of the 600 trainers in the country, provided they meet the qualifying criteria.”
Despite corroborating Daly’s comments, the trainer in question felt it was unfair to portray the profession in a negative light, and rejected her assertion staff were "indentured slaves".
“I disagree they're low-paid,” he said of stable staff. “The full-time staff member I have is paid more than €25,000. We're being portrayed as a low-paying industry, but other industries are much worse.
“Trainers are being held up to ridicule, but I don’t know of any trainers who treat their employees poorly. Even if they pay the new agreed minimum rate, it's still a fair bit more than the minimum wage. Why isn't Clare Daly holding up to ridicule these companies that are using zero-hours contracts?"
He concluded: “Trainers are caught between a rock and a hard place. There's undoubtedly a shortage of capable exercise riders. Anywhere that you have a shortage, people are going to be well paid, and they are being well paid, whether it's on the books or in the black market.
"I'm only barely hanging on, but the staff are able to drive this to a certain degree as well."