Museums and their staff are paying the price of low wages - Museums Association

Museums and their staff are paying the price of low wages

The government’s introduction of the National Living Wage might give low-paid staff a 50p per hour increase, but local authorities that have been hit by huge budget cuts are having to increase entry charges to cover the additional costs
How much money are you willing to sacrifice to work in a museum? Low pay has been a serious issue in the sector for years, with research by the union Prospect showing that museum and heritage roles can pay between £2,000 and £5,000 less than those that demand equivalent qualifications, skills and experience in other industries. It has been tolerated with a degree of resignation, seen as the price people pay for doing a job they love. But several recent developments have shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the extent of the problem.

While the UK-wide introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in April has brought a small pay rise to people on the lowest salaries, there is plenty of evidence elsewhere that the brutal funding cuts being meted out to museums are exacerbating the sector’s pay problem.

Last month, a museum that has lost all of its council funding posted a recruitment advert seeking a museum assistant. The responsibilities of the job included helping visitors, conducting guided tours and demonstrating exhibits, assisting with the use of equipment, and security patrols of the museum.

The advert continued: “This varied role will also include working with reception, ticketing, shop/cafe sales, cashing-up, stock control, answering the telephone and relaying messages.”

The salary offered – for a role spanning almost every public-facing aspect of the museum’s work – was £15,917-£15,941 a year (or £7.65-£7.66 an hour). The museum is by no means the only offender, but the advert is an indication that some cash-strapped institutions may be asking more of their employees for less than ever before.

The Museums Association’s most recent cuts survey revealed an increase in the use of volunteers and unpaid internships, even for roles with a high level of skill, while employees also report that redundancies and cuts to services have led them to carry out hours of unpaid overtime, simply to maintain standards.

This over-reliance on unpaid labour is depressing wages which, in the public sector, have already fallen well below the rate of inflation thanks to pay freezes over the past five years.

Much has been written about how low pay affects the diversity of the workforce, but the issue of pay is having a worrying impact on many other aspects of museum activity. Last month, the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, highlighted to the culture, media and sport select committee a “serious” erosion of curatorial strength in regional museums. Cuts have exacerbated the situation, said MacGregor, but one of the primary factors in this loss of expertise is salary structure.

“If you are somebody who might be a curator, you are going to be much better off going into a university teaching role in terms of both security and remuneration,” he added. “That is quite serious: the disparity between curatorial pay scales and university pay scales.”

Undervalued roles

There is evidence that museum roles are frequently undervalued by external stakeholders such as local authorities, who place them into lower pay grades because they don’t understand the nature of the work. One recruitment advert recently brought to the attention of Museums Journal sought an experienced candidate to manage volunteers, deliver heritage programmes and develop strategies to improve access, all for a starting salary of just £17,714. According to the museum’s manager, who queried the low salary with her local authority, the role failed to fulfil several key words in the council’s job evaluation procedure.

A question of survival

While low pay has ramifications for museum employees at every level, those at the sharpest end are those on the most basic salaries, including front-of-house, cleaning and catering staff. For them, it is not a question of receiving a commensurate salary, it’s about day-to-day survival. The government’s aforementioned National Living Wage has brought a welcome boost to minimum-wage employees (as long as they are over 25), with salaries increasing from £6.70 to £7.20 per hour this year, and rising to more than £9 by 2020. But the policy has been greeted with scepticism by many fair-pay campaigners, not least because it comes from a government that has cut many other benefits for people on low incomes.

“It’s an absolute joke,” says Clara Paillard, the culture sector spokeswoman for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents many museum staff. “Obviously, we welcome the fact that it has risen, but since wages have not been rising properly over the past few years, it is already well below the actual Living Wage, especially in London.”

The wage Paillard is referring to is a voluntary hourly rate set by the Living Wage Foundation based on the cost of living, amounting to £8.25 across the UK and £9.40 in London. The foundation recently expressed frustration that the “Living Wage” title
had been appropriated by politicians to describe what is simply a new minimum wage – and one that discriminates against under-25s.

There are fears that the National Living Wage could undermine the significant gains made to encourage companies to pay the actual Living Wage – in recent years, several high-profile campaigns have led to institutions such as the National Gallery signing up to pay the higher rate.

“Clearly, the National Living Wage has acted to distract from the questions that were being asked of employers about paying a living wage,” says National Museums Liverpool’s HR manager James Best.

Furthermore, staff in other industries have responded to the National Living Wage’s introduction by cutting other employee benefits, such as overtime pay, leaving staff with little more in their pockets than before. The PCS union is not aware of any museums doing this in response to the National Living Wage, says Paillard, but it is more difficult to track in cases where low-paid roles have been outsourced to private companies, a phenomenon that has snowballed in recent years. Paillard says it is not without precedent within the museum sector either, – in the past, several institutions that nominally agreed to pay the actual Living Wage later attempted to remove weekend allowances or change contracted hours for staff.

And even without taking into account the National Living Wage, museums are cutting back on in-work benefits. Staff at the National Museum of Scotland recently won a significant victory after months of strikes over cuts to weekend pay for new employees, which they said would create a “two-tier” workforce. A similar dispute at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) is yet to be resolved.

Challenges for employers

From an employer’s point of view, the National Living Wage has brought its own
set of challenges. It was introduced without warning in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement last October, which meant employers had little time to factor the pay rise into their budgets, particularly when already faced with funding cuts.

Bexley Heritage Trust
, which has had its budget cut by £200,000 this year, is one such example; the trust employs several seasonal and casual staff on the minimum wage, and has had to increase its charges for entry and activities as a result.

“I don’t begrudge [the pay rise] because the people we employ provide a great service, but we are having to pass it on to our customers,” says Caroline Worthington, the trust’s chief executive. “What was a pocket money activity isn’t any longer. The hidden impacts are much greater than people had foreseen.”

The question that underpins any discussion around low pay is how can museums give employees a fair deal when budgets are being cut across the UK? Paillard believes there should be a full inquiry into pay levels in museums and galleries, leading to the creation of pay scales that apply across the board. There are some developments in this area: the Museums Association is working on a piece of research with Arts Council England, which may inform future salary guidelines.

For many, it’s a moral question: it’s not about whether museums can afford to pay more, but whether they can afford not to.

“We’ve seen people [in the museum sector] losing their homes, using food banks, unable to afford shoes or uniforms,” says Paillard. “We’ve had people call us feeling suicidal. Their job is to welcome visitors, smile, be polite. But staff morale is going down.”
A fine line between increasing salaries and making redundancies
National Museums Liverpool (NML) has been criticised by the PCS union for not signing up to be an accredited Living Wage employer – but the museum says it is a balancing act between paying more and preventing redundancies.

David Fleming, the director of NML, said: “I shared with NML staff the challenge in addressing low pay at the same time as budgets are shrinking, and they seemed to understand the risks of job losses. It’s not a position shared with our trade unions, though.”

But the museum is trying to follow the principle, if not the letter, of the Living Wage.
“For the previous few years, we have been using the Living Wage as a benchmark to be working towards,” says NML’s HR manager James Best. “While we haven’t achieved that – we have dropped below following the most recent increase – we have continued to focus our resources on our lowest-paid staff.”

The introduction of the National Living Wage has not been an issue for staff at NML because they are all already paid more, he says. However, employees of the museum’s trading arm, who are paid minimum wage rates on a par with the hospitality industry, have received a pay rise. NML has chosen to offer the National Living Wage to all staff, not just those over 25.

“We couldn’t justify paying staff different rates for the same job, based on their age,” says Best.

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