Monday, November 10, 2014

It's time to form a Players' Union

With the recent changes implemented by the Football Association of Singapore on the 2015 S.League, the need for more protection for professional football players and their livelihood have come into the spotlight over the past few days.

The 'Professional Footballers' Association' is a common practice in many countries around the world. Some of the more notable ones are: the Professional Footballers' Association (UK), the Associazione Italiana Calciatori (Italy), the Major League Soccer Players Union (USA) and the international organisation FIFPro, which represents over 65,000 players around the world (At time of writing, not a single Singaporean footballer is under their purview).

All of them have similar aims and objectives, most relating to protection of players' contract and conditions, rights and statuses by way of a collective bargaining process. The Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionnels (UNFP, France), also organises training sessions for players who are nearing the end of their contract, or out of contract, to help players maintain their playing fitness.

There is no better time to be seriously looking at setting up a PFA in Singapore. Over 40 players are expected to be clubless next season and another 20-30 more unlikely to qualify to play due to the limit on players aged 30 and above.

It is honestly going to be very difficult to help these players as there are no existing safety nets in place, but we can surely learn from this incident and do something to ensure that this does not happen again.

It is farcical how, despite the league being sponsored by Great Eastern, the largest life insurance provider in Singapore and Malaysia, players do not actually benefit from the sponsorship. Any policy to safeguard their health and careers are usually handled by the players themselves.

Warriors FC goalkeeper Hassan Sunny picked up the S.League Player of the Year Award for 2014, but he was classy enough to put aside the celebratory words to show some concern for his fellow players.

“Players and coaches who lose their jobs as a result cannot be left alone just like that. Something must be done for them, as they have served the league well. The FAS can provide them with some subsidies to prepare for life after football, such as provide them some compensation to equip themselves with relevant skills to find jobs in the footballing industry and even outside of it." (TODAY, 10 Nov 2014)

In the same article, another player highlighted the need for more transparency in the decision-making process and hoped for more welfare for football players.

“There are many other sports associations smaller than us and their athletes have a voice,” he said. “I wish these decisions were discussed with a players’ union and other stakeholders before they are passed down. It is too abrupt.” - Faizal Amir, Hougang United defender

Talk of setting up a Players' Union is not new. Writer Siva Govindasamy wrote on 1 Mar 2005 after the Lions' 2004 Tiger Cup triumph over Indonesia:

The Jeykanth Jeyapal - Geylang United incident brought about a variety of emotions – shock when it emerged that the club sacked him after he was injured playing for them, and incredulity when the club sacked him a second time – after the Football Association of Singapore’s players status committee ruled that the first dismissal was illegal. 
The most important emotion, however, was sadness at the fact that there is little protection for players. This was not the only example. Also in the pre-season, the FAS had to mediate in a wage dispute between Balestier Khalsa and eight of their former players, while Sinchi’s past problems with their players are well known.

(Between 2005 and present day, it is also important to remember that in 2012, Etoile FC was forced to pull out of the league after it was publicly made known that the club management had owed salaries to staff and players.)

Siva also mentioned in his article then that past attempts had been restricted to 'mere words', and even nine years later, there has been nothing but words. It is time to stop talking and take action.

Just over a month ago, Home United were ordered by the FAS' Player Status Committee to pay Sevki Sha'ban full compensation inclusive of CPF, until the end of his original contract. In July, Home had terminated Sevki's contract without a valid reason.

These incidents bring to mind the usefulness of having a PFA. While the Player Status Committee had indeed helped Sevki with his problems, it is still a sub-division of the FAS, as such there may be conflict of interest in certain matters.

However, I wish to stress that a PFA is not going to work against the FAS. Instead, the FAS should welcome the establishment of a PFA and work together with it to help protect players' interests, improve career stability and establish professional employment practices within the professional football industry. After all, without players, there will be no football to watch.

Having said all that, setting up a PFA will not be easy. It will require the support of influential players past and present, and dedicated legal advisors who have interest in the sport and valuable experience in manpower law. Preferably, an ex-player who is not employed by the FAS should serve as its Chief Executive.

Siva put it best when he suggested that:
Membership must be made compulsory of everyone who plays in the S.League. They should be expected to make a monthly monetary contribution to the PFAS – those earning up to $2000 should give up 3% of their monthly salary, 4% for those earning up to $3000, 5% for those earning up to $5000, 6% for those earning more than $5000. 
The FAS and S.League, on their part, could match this dollar for dollar as a signal that it too is interested in the welfare of the players. How this money is invested, either in insurance or in any other form of investment, can be discussed with league sponsors NTUC Income and its slew of financial investors.  
Yet, this PFAS cannot be a lame duck. It should get lawyers who are interested in football to help them with legal matters, and consult coaches who are familiar with how players’ unions work in other countries. It should be firm when the time comes and, as the cliché goes, prove to the players that membership does have its privileges.
Lastly, the PFA should not only serve the interests of players during their playing careers, but also be able to provide them with opportunities to upgrade themselves in terms of education and professional learning, to prepare them for their post-playing career.

These are indeed baby steps, but they will prove to be a crucial element in changing the mindsets that professional football is not a viable career in Singapore. There are 64 employee trade unions in Singapore registered with the Ministry of Manpower. Are any players willing to step up to make it 65?

Written by our contributor Basil Yeo