‘Slave labor type salaries’ for cyclists is exploitation, commissioner says ahead of review release

Expecting athletes to chase medals while living off “slave labor type salaries” is exploitation, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo says.

The independent review into cycling due to be released on Monday is set to reveal a culture of medals over athletes, and will show athletes experienced a financial shortfall while in the high performance program. It will recommend a rewrite of athlete agreements, conditions and funding.

The review, established following Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore’s death, will recommend athletes become employees rather than contractors, which means minimum wage and employment law requirements would need to be met.

World champion BMXer Jessie Smith says she was told to stop working to focus on her sport, which led to her living in poverty.

Nico van Dartel

World champion BMXer Jessie Smith says she was told to stop working to focus on her sport, which led to her living in poverty.

Athletes have reported living in poverty, including BMX world champion Jessie Smith who said she was told to stop working to focus on her sport. She said on Thursday, because of that request and the limited financial support she received from Cycling NZ, at times she wondered where her next meal would come from, would often miss rent payments and didn’t have enough money to cover the registration or warrant of fitness for her car.

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She, like others within the cycling high performance programme, received performance enhancement or development training grants. Athletes on performance enhancement grants received before tax between $25,000 and $60,000 as of 2019. The amount they received was based off their success in winning medals at key events, including the Olympics, according to a document obtained by Stuff.

Development training grants were $12,500 per year before tax. The current minimum wage is approximately $44,000 per year.

Several sources told stuff some athletes within the program went unpaid, while having to experience the same training and racing expectations as paid teammates.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo describes some athlete funding as “slave labor type salaries”.

supplied

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo describes some athlete funding as “slave labor type salaries”.

In December 2021 High Performance Sport New Zealand announced a new funding strategy that would see more than $25 million given directly to athletes. Between 240-260 elite athletes across a range of sports are to receive a base training grant of $25,000 a year, while a further 140-160 developing athletes receive $10,000 per year. Some athletes will be able to earn more via “excellence grants”, based on performance.

Sumeo describes some of the financial support being received by athletes as “slave labor type salaries”.

“It’s called financial exploitation,” she says.

“We’re expecting these people to be … ambassadors for sport, for our country, and that is how much they are worth?

“This is taxpayers’ funds. I think if the taxpayer saw that payment in comparison to the minimum wage, they would be appalled. And yet, we expect our superstars to perform and represent us. But we’re not treating them at all in a way that is decent.”

She says being an athlete is a job, and it needs to be treated as such. She says the current structure is an “inhumane way to treat our people”.

“They [athletes] represent us. We wouldn’t want to be known as exploiters of our own people on the international stage,” she says.

“Let’s be honest about it, and we need to do better. We need to make sure that we obey our employment laws when we’re engaging and contracting the services of athletes.

“There is a view out there that if you are a sports person, it’s a privilege. But we have to recognize it as an employment relationship. We need to see it in that light, because that is what it is.”

Athletes Federation general manager Roger Mortimer said athletes have “suffered for too long”.

Grahame Cox/Sunday News

Athletes Federation general manager Roger Mortimer said athletes have “suffered for too long”.

Athletes Federation general manager Roger Mortimer says the athletes have “suffered for too long”.

He says it’s because of a direct result of not being given the opportunity to be independently represented in a “genuine process that mutually agrees the terms and conditions of their working environment directly with the New Zealand sports system”.

“As has been experienced in many other sports, until this occurs meaningful change will not be realised.”

The independent review, spanning more than 100 pages and more than 25 recommendations, and overseen by Mike Heron QC and leading academic Sarah Leberman, is set to be released publicly on Monday.

It will address a culture of medals over athletes, favouritism, a disconnect between staff and athletes, the “concerning” use of non-disclosure agreements, the centralized high performance model, staff hiring practices and a lack of consideration of women’s health.

In a joint statement on Friday Cycling NZ and High Performance NZ said they will comment after the inquiry panel has given their context regarding the review at a media conference on Monday.

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