Tensions rise over mass redundancies

The scale of job losses raises questions about what the cultural sector will look like in future
Jonathan Knott
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A protest about job cuts outside Tate Modern
A protest about job cuts outside Tate Modern PCS Culture Group

News that Tate is making more than 300 of staff at its commercial subsidiary redundant has brought home the scale of the crisis facing the museum sector’s workforce. This follows announcements of other plans for redundancies including up to 1,200 at the National Trust, about 400 at London’s Southbank Centre, and many more at the museum trusts in Birmingham and York.

These developments have dampened hopes that the UK government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund might save jobs in the sector. The official guidance makes clear that the overriding purpose of the £1.15bn of grants and loans available is to enable institutions themselves to survive the crisis. Shedding staff is one of the options and redundancy payments are among the purposes the money can be used for. An email to staff from Tate’s director and chief operating officer said that any bailout funding would not stem the job losses because it “will have to be used to offset the substantial loss of income elsewhere in the gallery”.

The high price being paid by many cultural workers has led to rising tensions with management. When Tate announced its redundancies, the Public and Commercial Services Union’s Culture Group secretary Steven Warwick said “we don’t think any redundancies should be made while executives at Tate are still earning hundreds of thousands of pounds salaries”. An open letter from a group of Southbank employees called Save our Southbank (SOS) similarly questions levels of executive pay, pointing out that Southbank’s chief executive received £240,750 in salary and bonus in 2018/19.

Southbank says its senior leadership team has taken a pay cut of at least 20% until March 2021, but this has not appeased SOS. The group feel the organisation has been too quick to initiate job cuts and says the organisation has backtracked on its redundancy policy. An SOS spokesperson said that while the organisation’s stated approach has been to offer three weeks of redundancy pay per year of service, it now says it can only afford the statutory minimum of one week. “A lot of people are going to come out of this process with only a couple of hundred pounds to live on for I don’t know how long,” said the spokesperson.

SOS has also been disappointed with the communication it has received from the organisation, saying this has lacked transparency and empathy. The group says it is not sure whether Southbank is applying for support from the government bailout package.

“One of our key issues is the speed at which they’re moving,” said the spokesperson. “We’re just asking them to slow down and consider all their options properly. Not centralising at the very least paying their own redundancy packages – potentially from government money – to us seems indicative of how the management is treating its staff”.

In a published response to the open letter, Southbank Centre said it expects to lose £25m this financial year and needs to carry out the restructure to ensure its future. The response also contested a number of other claims made by SOS relating to issues such as racial equality, management pay and the nature of its plans. A Southbank spokesperson said the organisation had no further comment beyond the published response.

The need to act quickly combined with delays in the announcement of government support makes the situation difficult to handle even for the best-intentioned of employers. Lisa Browne, who is leading negotiations for the Prospect union on behalf of staff at the National Trust, says the organisation has had to go ahead with redundancy consultations before it knows whether it will receive emergency funding.

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She says the organisation has set a good example by putting mechanisms in place to mitigate its redundancy plans if it receives enough support: “If they do get some funding awarded, they can make that last-minute change." Browne adds that the trust only went ahead with job cuts after exhausting alternative methods for saving money including reducing its spending on travel and printed materials.

The National Trust is typical in that its retail, catering and visitor services will see the biggest job cuts. SOS expects the majority of Southbank’s visitor experience, ticketing and production jobs to be cut, as well as about a third of programming roles. Concerns have also been raised that BAME workers will be hardest hit by restructures. The Tate executives’ email said the proportion of BAME colleagues would remain “broadly the same”, while Southbank says its plans will be subject to an equality impact assessment. The National Trust also said that it was carrying out equality impact assessments, as well as working with staff networks, and requiring unconscious bias training for managers.

The rapid downsizing of commercial and visitor-facing departments also calls into question fundamental principles within a sector that is persistently encouraged to generate more of its own income. The institutions that went furthest down this road are now among the hardest hit by the crisis.

However the sector emerges from the pandemic, losing a large part of their workforce will change the character of cultural institutions and raises the question of what is being saved. “If a lot of the staff connected to the communities in London we are supposed to serve are gone,” says the SOS spokesperson, “then what is Southbank Centre?”

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