Museums capitalising on zero-hours contracts

Tate, NMNI and the BM among those to use practice
Patrick Steel
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Museums are using zero-hours contracts for a range of roles, from front-of-house staff and gallery assistants to catering and security, education and learning staff, and hosts for events and special exhibitions, Museums Journal can reveal.

National Museums Northern Ireland has 215 employees on zero-hours contracts, but only 186 have worked in the past year. The British Museum has 40 staff and National Museums Scotland 18 employees on zero-hours contracts.

Other institutions employing staff on zero-hours contracts include the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), National Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool, Science Museum, Ashmolean Museum, Hunterian Museum and University College London Museums.

All of the organisations contacted by Museums Journal offered non-exclusive contracts, allowing staff to work elsewhere, with the exception of University of Glasgow Central Services, which employs security staff on zero-hours contracts at the Hunterian Museum and requires them to seek consent before engaging in other paid employment.

Some offered pro-rata sick pay, annual leave and the option to join the museum’s pension scheme. Many museums also employ contractors that use zero-hours contracts.

Wilson James, which provides security and customer care for clients including Tate, the V&A, Science Museum and Natural History Museum, said about 26 of its museum staff were on non-exclusive zero-hours contracts.

According to trade union PCS, Wilson James also employs about 100 staff on zero-hours contracts at Tate.

Felicity Flynn, a PCS representative for Wilson James visitor assistants at Tate, who is herself employed on zero-hours contracts at Tate and at the Museum of Childhood, said a lack of guaranteed hours can have a negative impact on staff.

“One of my members worked 21 days in a row during last year’s Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern,” she said.

“Many of these shifts were 12 hours long. I was concerned about his health, but he insisted on working like this because he needed the money.”

A Wilson James spokeswoman said: “Wilson James fully complies with the provisions of the working time regulations. The health, safety and wellbeing of our employees remain our priority at all times.”

While some in the sector regard zero-hours contracts as necessary for a flexible workforce, others fear they are being used to replace core staff following budget cuts. One local authority museum manager, whose budget of £60,000 was axed by the council, employs two full-time staff and six on zero-hours contracts.

He said: “We have to generate all of our revenue from visitors, so if we deliver a great service, then the hours are there [for staff on zero-hours contracts].

“If you have no reliable income, putting staff on guaranteed hours exposes the museum to financial ruin. And how long can a bankrupt museum pay any employee?”

A visitor services team manager at one national said: “When done well, with good communication and honesty between both parties, a zero-hours contract employee can be the difference between a closed gallery and an open one.”

But a PCS spokesman said: “These contracts are accepted by most workers because they have no choice. The work/life balance shifts dramatically in favour of the employer and, in the wrong hands, can lead to exploitation and unacceptable breaches of employment.”

Zero-hours contracts

  • Under a zero-hours contract, an employee is not guaranteed work and is paid only for work carried out.
  • Employers are not obliged to offer work to such staff. Neither are employees obliged to take work offered.
  • The Office for National Statistics estimates that the number of workers on zero-hours contracts has risen over the past decade, with about 250,000 people, roughly 1% of the workforce, on them in 2012. However, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently estimated the figure to be closer to a million.
  • Workers on zero-hours contracts are paid, on average, £6 an hour less than other workers, according to a survey by the Resolution Foundation.

Update

02.09.2013

Wilson James issued the following additional statement: "Wilson James are able confirm that there were no instances of employees working 21 consecutive shifts during the Damien Hirst exhibition last year.

"Close monitoring of working hours is carried out at all times across all Wilson James’ operational activities to prevent such occurrences arising."



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