How Birmingham Museums is improving working conditions for staff - Museums Association

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How Birmingham Museums is improving working conditions for staff

Staff survey found only a third feel fairly compensated, says Zak Mensah
Front-of-house staff at Birmingham Museums Trust

Sara Wajid and I have been joint chief executives of Birmingham Museums Trust for more than a year. The first year was focused on stabilising the organisation. It is now about growth and realignment.

In our 2022 engagement survey, we asked colleagues how much they agreed with this statement: “My overall pay and benefits are fair for the work I do, compared with other third-sector organisations (charities and social enterprises).” We needed 65% to identify that we were doing well – but only 32% agreed.

Our strategy says: “We will empower people and communities to imagine and shape an ambitious, vibrant, creative, multicultural city.” This is a guide for our public-facing activities, but also applies equally to us as an employer. To live by our commitment to empowering colleagues, we needed to address this key issue, which has coincided with a rise in the cost of living – something that is becoming a crisis. To realign our pay and benefits, we tasked our people and culture team to give us a sense of the scale of the problem. 

It turns out that we were 10-15% behind similar employers for most roles, in terms of pay-related benefits. The exception is salaries pegged to the Real Living Wage scheme, which the organisation has been part of for more than five years. These salaries have increased.

In February, we took the issue to the board, and our trustees asked us to make a proposal. We also decided to keep Real Living Wage roles within that scheme on the pure pay benefit element. We factored in the risks of not implementing this, including the impact on recruitment and employee relations, and the issue of not being aligned to our values.


We originally presented a range of options and settled on a 5% pay rise, which the board accepted. But we were also asked to explore further increases and other pay related-benefits in the coming years.

Our holiday entitlement is pretty good, but doesn’t directly address cost of living, so we opted to increase pension contributions for those not originally transferred from the council under Tupe regulations, which protect employees’ rights when they switch employer. This also benefits those on the Real Living Wage.

The investment is about 2% of our annual turnover. We took a calculated risk, in terms of finding the budget. At the start of the financial year, we load budgets assuming all vacancies are filled. In reality, we can take months to recruit, which creates a pot of available money. In a normal year, those funds would be repurposed. But this year we have ringfenced them and added the flexibility of purposefully holding vacancies a bit longer, if needed. Furthermore, we are hoping to increase income.

We are now committed to an annual review of pay and benefits

Zak Mensah

We are now committed to an annual review of pay and benefits, to help move us from the lower range to the mid-range in the sector over the next few years.

Our next aim is to work with staff at the trust on what we can do to improve their working lives. For example, the forced experiments during the pandemic of hybrid working have led to positive feedback, and we want to push this further. We do not want pay or working conditions to be the key reason staff leave our organisation or feel disempowered.

Comments (1)

  1. Alexander Goodger says:

    One of the big issues at Birmingham Museums Trust was the introduction and increase in zero hour contracts amongst its lowest paid workers. The Trust has been struggling financially for many years since its independence from the council, and the new joint chief executives have been doing great work at BMT, but the flexible contracts are largely unwelcome in the sector. According to TUC, two in five (40 per cent) BME workers on insecure contracts report that they faced the threat of losing their shifts if they turned down work, compared to a quarter (25 per cent) of white insecure workers. BME women are almost twice as likely to be on zero-hours contracts as white men, so unless we address these contracts, we cannot address diversity issues that we want to address in our sector. Zero hours contract work well for the employer in terms of flexibility but poorly for the employee. Receiving a call at 7:30am to find out if you can work at 9am plays havoc on your personal life.

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