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Corbyn backs art experts taking on the National Gallery

Trafalgar Square-based ‘educators’ set for landmark employment tribunal after being told to reapply for jobs on worse conditions

23 November, 2018 — By Tom Foot

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour colleagues meet the art experts

MPs including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have swung behind a group of art experts leading a legal challenge against the National Gallery.

The politicians met the “educators” in the House of Commons on Wednesday to talk about the campaign and a landmark employment tribunal due to take place next week.

The gallery experts had worked on programmes in Trafalgar Square for years but last October they were told to reapply for small pool jobs on worse conditions.

Managers argued they were self-employed – despite decades of work – and said they had no rights to benefits or consultation about the changes.

The National Gallery 27, the name of the group ­taking the case to tribunal, say the staff had worked regularly for decades, were on the payroll, taxed at source, and were required to attend staff training and have appraisals.

The case could set a legal precedent for workers at publicly-funded institutions like the gallery.

In a message of support Mr Corbyn said: “I am very concerned about the number of people who are bogusly self-employed, but in reality are employed by big companies and organisations across the country. I am here to listen and support these wonderful people who have given years of great service to our National Gallery. It is a precious national asset and staff there should be treated properly.”

Labour MP Stella Creasy said: “The ramifications of this case go far beyond what happens to the 27 people taking a class action.

“It is about whether our public services are acting in an ethical fashion, not just how they pay people but how they treat people when they want to make changes, and what that means today when more and more are being classed as self-employed.

“I am worried about the people at the heart of this and the difficulties they have gone through.”

Steven Barrett has worked at the National Gallery for 13 years.

After completing a fine art degree, a history of art masters and then teacher training, he worked for the gallery on a number of projects including taking art into hospital schools. He said: “We were treated as employees but the gal­lery is insisting we were self-employed. We were dismissed and then told we could apply for fewer positions with worse conditions. It is a huge loss to the gallery, and to the public and we do not understand why the gallery has done this.”

The case is seen as a vital issue covering work­ing conditions and the gig economy today, with the employment tri­bunal looking at what could be a new point of law: whether workers should have a right to a collective consultation before a contract is terminated.

If they are successful, it could have deep ramifications protecting the rights of workers across the UK.

Marie-Therese Ross, who worked for the National Gallery for 24 years, added: “This isn’t just about us. Our case highlights the exploitation of precarious workers across the arts and beyond. We are standing up for fair employment rights and calling for our public arts organisations to value the expertise and experience at the heart of their programmes.”

A statement from the gallery said: “It is our understanding that the claims have arisen out of the National Gallery’s choice, as an ethical employer, to change from offering ad hoc work to offering more secure employment with additional pension and worker benefits. It is important to state that this case should not be likened to the ‘gig economy’ debate that has been in the news recently. In fact, the National Gallery situation is exactly the opposite.

“The ‘gig economy’ cases have arisen out of organisations opting to offer people ad hoc employ­ment, zero-hours contracts and no oppor­tunity for job security. We have taken a deliberate choice to move towards a model that offers people secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits. The gallery believes that it has acted both lawfully and fairly.”

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