Front of house staff at Royal Museums Greenwich are striking on Saturday, for the second time this year, over changes to their contracts imposed last November. ALICE TROY-DONOVAN spoke to staff about why they need a pay rise – as well as a chance to sit down.
New Year’s Day saw around 50 members of staff at the National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House and Royal Observatory Greenwich walk out in protest against changes to their terms and conditions. They will strike again on Saturday – the day of the museum’s Chinese New Year celebrations – following what they say is a lack of decisive action taken by management since their first walkout.
The majority of visitors and sales assistants earn £7.50 an hour, the legal minimum wage, with RMG one of the only museums in London not paying the London Living Wage of £10.20 per hour. It also has one of the largest wage gaps between the highest and lowest paid staff members among the capital’s museums – in the 2016-2017 tax year RMG director Kevin Fewster earned over £140,000.
The new terms mean the assistants’ work shifts can fall between 8am and 8pm, having been previously scheduled between 9.30am and 5.15pm. In addition to limiting opportunities to earn overtime, the altered contract also renders all breaks unpaid and reduces break times by up to 40 minutes for many staff members.
With most of RMG’s 100 or so front of house staff on less than the London Living Wage, many feel the new conditions are making it harder to meet the cost of living in the capital.
‘The museum isn’t listening to its staff’
“It’s not just about the money,” says Spencer. “The issue is much broader: about how the museum is dealing with cutbacks and failing to listen to, and show that they value, their staff members.”
Beyond contractural changes, general treatment of staff has made workers feel “undervalued and looked down upon,” he says.
Before February this year, visitor assistants on shifts in certain galleries had no access to seating.
“I was getting backache from standing on my feet all day,” says Donald Mullis, another RMG union representative.
“As far as I can tell, it’s common practice among other London museums to let your gallery assistants have access to seating when they need it,” he says.
As of this month, the museum is trialling seating in all galleries. However, it has retained the rule that staff must stand if a member of the public enters the gallery, and suggested that any contravention may result in the trial ending.
“If one person breaks this rule, everybody suffers,” says Spencer. “It’s a school-like mentality, very unprofessional and childish. We want to speak about this as adults.”
RMG says a key part of the visitor assistants’ role is to regularly patrol their designated area, though it has always made exceptions for “any staff that have medical conditions that require regular rest”. It cites “visitor experience, security, and health and safety” as the reasons for requiring staff to stand.
But Mullis says visitor assistants feel these rules are belittling. “75% of the museum’s staff have desk jobs. They can wear what they like, eat when they like, and don’t have to ask permission to go to the toilet.”
Dealing with government cuts
As with many museums, RMG is dealing with cutbacks in its government funding and says it cannot yet afford to meet the London Living Wage.
“It’s not that we disagree that some cuts have to be made,” says Spencer. “But we do disagree with how it’s being managed and laid out to us. We want to talk, and we want a compromise.”
RMG director Fewster has said “the majority of the RMG front of house team agreed to the new terms and conditions”. But union members feel cuts to pay have been underhand. Following talks with Prospect, the museum increased the hourly rate by up to 3%. However, had they kept paid breaks without this pay rise, staff would be better off when the legal minimum wage increases in April.
Staff say the introduction of unpaid breaks was also “misrepresented” by the museum as shorter working days for staff. “They fiddled with the numbers to make it look that way, but we’re not actually working a shorter day,” says Mullis.
“We still need to be available to the museum between 9.30am and 5.15pm. So that was a ridiculous thing to say.”
‘We don’t want to harm the museum’
Fewster has said RMG is working towards a sustainable plan to secure London Living Wage for its staff, but many feel this is an empty pledge, as no concrete plan has been put forward. Union representatives say “concessions” have been hinted at, but no details have been presented.
“We’re hoping that this strike will at least begin a dialogue between the workers and the museum management,” says Spencer.
The high number of visitors to the museums on 17th February, when the museum marks the Chinese Year of the Dog, will be a good opportunity to talk directly to the public.
“The museum has a reputation, and we don’t want to harm that, but we need to get people to turn their heads. I don’t think many of the general public are aware of how we’re being treated.
“There’s quite an optimistic feeling among the union members. Last time, the museum didn’t believe we were going to strike – they didn’t know what to do when we actually went through with it.
“We hope that, this time, the director of the museum will take proper notice of how serious this is.”