Hundreds of national museum workers on zero-hours contracts

Questions raised about the ethics of employment terms usually associated with discount stores and fast-food chains



The use by employers in Britain, including McDonald’s, Amazon, Sports Direct and Cineworld, of so-called “zero-hours” contracts—which do not guarantee any minimum hours of work—hit the headlines in July. There was surprise when it emerged that more than 200 workers at the Tate are on the controversial contracts, but research by The Art Newspaper reveals that the practice is widespread in other leading museums.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimates that there are around one million zero-hours workers in the UK—four times the government’s official figures. In the most extreme version of the zero-hours contract, workers are permanently on call, do not receive holiday or sick pay and are even prevented from taking work with another employers.

The Art Newspaper found that most of the UK’s leading art museums use some form of zero-hours contracts, employing people as gallery assistants and warders, and in shops and catering. These include London’s National Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Serpentine and Whitechapel galleries, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, and National Museums Liverpool—as well as the Tate’s four galleries.

Robust defence

Negative headlines about low pay and job insecurity, and reports of fears among zero-hours employees that speaking out might result in their losing the work they had, led the government to promise a review, the result of which is due this month.

All the galleries defend their use of such contracts, arguing that they provide both employer and employee with flexibility, and add that no one is obliged to accept the hours offered. Unions argue that the deals are one-sided and come at too high a price for many workers, who have little choice in the current labour market, where unemployment is at 7.8%. A woman who has worked on zero-hours contracts at a number of London galleries, speaking anonymously, describes feeling “100% replaceable” after 500 people applied for five vacancies as gallery assistants at one of them.

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery says: “We have zero-hours contracts, related to areas of short-term relief, such as weekend events, evening events, special exhibitions and sick cover. Although the number varies, there are up to 80 at any one time.”

The British Museum employs around 40 members of staff on zero-hours contracts, a spokeswoman says. She says the staff are entitled, “pro-rata, to sick pay, to paid annual leave and to join the pension scheme”.

A spokeswoman for the V&A says that having a network of trained gallery assistants to work on an ad-hoc basis provides a “better visitor experience and higher level of public safety than employing people through a temp agency”.

The reluctance of some institutions to discuss their policies openly, however, suggests that there is a degree of unease. A spokeswoman for the Tate insists that “the Tate Gallery does not employ any staff on zero-hours contracts”, drawing a distinction between the gallery and its commercial arm, Tate Enterprises. At the latter, she says, 40% of the 515 staff are on zero-hours contracts. When questioned about agency staff working as gallery assistants at the Tate, she declined to comment, citing commercial confidentiality. A spokeswoman for the agency, Wilson James, confirmed that some of its staff at the Tate are on zero-hours contracts.

Playing the zero-sum game

There is no legal definition of a zero-hours contract. An employer hires a worker but, unlike a standard contract, there is no obligation to provide the worker with a minimum number of hours. In extreme cases, the employer is not obliged to offer any work in a particular week, but the worker is obliged to be available and to accept whatever work is offered. The museums we spoke to stressed that they do not impose such onerous conditions. They also stress that they offer benefits, such as holiday and sick pay. J.P.

Andy Bodle, the director of operations and human resources at the National Maritime Museum, London, which uses zero-hours contracts, says there is demand for jobs. “There’s a university across the road and it fits with students who need the work. And there are other people who might not want to work full-time.” He cites retired members of the security team. “We ask them back, so they can retire flexibly.” But he warns that employers need to exercise caution. If someone was on such a contract for years, “I would be worried about what is in it for the worker”, he says.

Godfrey Worsdale, the director of the Baltic, says that it is “cynical” when companies employ the majority of their staff on zero-hours contracts. He says that only 15% of the gallery assistants at the Baltic are on them.

Financial limbo

Zero-hours contracts are condemned by Clara Paillard, the head of the Public and Commercial Services Union’s culture sector. “People are left living on the brink, not knowing if they can pay the rent,” she says. The union says that staff can work “weeks on end without a day off” in busy periods and suffer financial hardship during quiet times.

Paillard cites one of the union’s members, who was employed by National Museums Liverpool for seven years on different types of contracts, which left her in a constant state of “limbo” about her income. A spokesman for the museums says it has around 30 staff, “mainly students”, on zero-hours contracts, and that those contracts are “currently under review”.

Paillard hopes that negative stories in the press will lead museums to stop using the contracts. The union is also planning a protest in Trafalgar Square on 18 September about the issue and the effects of financial cuts on the arts.

Hilary Barnard, a management consultant who has worked with arts organisations, is unimpressed by the lack of openness of certain institutions. She also criticises the use of zero-hours contracts. “They are not a creative response to securing financial and organisational sustainability but a dumping of financial difficulties on staff that they didn’t create,” she says.

The artist Jeremy Deller says such contracts are “probably OK if you are young, want part-time work, are studying or want to spend time in the studio. But if you have a family to support, then a low wage, minimal rights and this insecure method of working is a big problem.”