March 4, 2019

Museum Educators at London's National Gallery Win Case Over Workers' Rights

LONDON, ENGLAND—A British employment tribunal has ruled in favor of a group of twenty-seven museum educators who sued the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in London over workers’ rights after they were misclassified as freelance contractors by the museum, The Guardian reports. The decision may set a new precedent for people who work flexible hours, such as under short-term contracts or on a freelance basis, in the public sector.

Known as NG27, the group of artists, art historians, and lecturers collectively had five hundred hours of experience working for the gallery, and several of them had been with the institution for decades. They decided to file a lawsuit against the institution for unfair dismissal after they were fired in October 2017. In the complaint, the group argued that they deserved the same benefits as permanent employees—including sick leave, paid vacation, and pensions—and sought back pay from the gallery.

While the tribunal judge ruled against the unfair dismissal, he stated that it was “unsustainable” for the gallery to continue calling the educators self-employed. The judge concluded that the claimants “worked for the gallery as members of its team of educators” and that “it is unreal to describe the dealings between the parties as transactions in which the gallery stood as the client or customer of any business undertaking carried on by any of the lead claimants.”

While the ruling declares the members of NG27 “workers,” which is a higher status than freelancers, it still does not entitle them to the same rights as “employees.” Due to the distinction between the designations, the ruling is actually being viewed as a triumph by both the gallery and the educators.

“We are ecstatic to have received this judgment and of course are so grateful for the amazing support we have received over the last seventeen months,” NG27 said. In response to the decision, a spokesperson for the National Gallery issued the following statement: “The gallery welcomes the clarity provided by this decision, namely that the claimants in this case were not employees of the gallery.”

Leading up to the tribunal hearing, the gallery claimed that the legal battle was sparked after it decided to move away from offering ad hoc work and to “[offer] more secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits.” In a statement, the gallery said: “The entire group was consulted for their views about the change—both together and individually—for a period of three months between October 2017 and January 2018.” It also said that the majority of those involved are still providing the same services or have accepted new contracts.

In response, NG27 said that eight of the claimants did receive offers of permanent contracts, but they were with “greatly reduced salary and terms.” They crowdfunded more than $100,000 to pay for their legal representation and to pursue taking the gallery to court. While NG27 considers the ruling a win, it acknowledged that it still has to fight to ensure they receive their “full rights.”

Commenting on the outcome, Marie van der Zyl, a partner at law firm Ince Gordon Dadds, which represented the claimants, said: “This is an important case for all those who have unconventional working arrangements. The world of work is changing and there will be many individuals who are unsure of their status and rights. This case gives those individuals hope.”

While the proceedings follow a landmark ruling delivered in 2016 and upheld by the UK’s Court of Appeals in December that recognized Uber drivers in the UK as workers, the National Gallery believes that the case “should not be likened to the ‘gig economy’ debate.”

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