long read opinion

Why won’t museums pay their staff fairly?

With museum staff all over the country going on strike, we ask - why exactly do museums keep refusing to pay their workers fairly.

This week staff at Museums across the UK have gone on strike. Everyone from curators, explainers, archivists and front of house staff are calling to not just be fairly paid, but to be a paid a reasonable wage to live on.

Since 2011 Science Museum staff have seen a real terms pay cut of 10% since 2011. It’s estimated that 25% of staff earn less than the real living wage, which is frankly disgusting.

For those who don’t the national living wage is the bare minimum you can legally pay someone over 25. Currently this is £8.21 (or if you are under 25, it’s £7.70). HOWEVER, when you actually factor in silly little things like rising rent costs, inflation on food, transportation and general goods and services, the national living wage doesn’t cut it.

Instead it’s advised that companies pay the real living wage (which for you economics lovers out there, is £9 or £10.55 for those in London, because everything is more expensive in London!). But the key word here is ‘advised’. You don’t actually have to pay the real living wage and you best believe many museums are choosing not to pay it.

So what’s the big deal?

It’s not a matter of pounds but pennies right? And yet, those pennies make a difference. It’s knowing you have enough money for the bus to work at the end of the month, It’s having enough food on the table and putting the heating on when it’s cold. It’s the teetering point, between a good quality of life for you and family, or scraping by perilously close to the poverty line.

That’s an incredibly hard position to financially be in. And it’s made worse when you realise that whilst a quarter of staff are counting the coins to get by, The Science Museum Groups director is on over £100k.

As Prospect negotiator Sharon Brown said:

“It is clear from the accounts that SMG (Science Museum Group) can afford to pay a reasonable way. It’s time for management to sort this out so our members can get on with the jobs they love”.

And the Science Museum staff are far from alone. Also striking are staff at the Museum of London, who have seen a 6% real terms pay cut since 2013, but also watched on as the number of those in higher up positions earning over 100k has doubled. Oh and despite being in a period where the museum is undergoing a location move costing hundreds of millions and they apparently can’t afford to pay all their staff fairly – the museum Director took home a 5% raise.

Science Museum strike, Courtesy of Prospect
Because although this is THE WORST – museum staff know how to break it down. Courtesy of Prospect

Having worked at one of these museums in the last few years, I can categorically tell you that there is a startling disparity between how those at the top are paid and those at the ‘bottom’ are paid.

To give full disclosure, until Nov 2018 I worked as a press officer in one of the striking museums and I was paid around 31k. I didn’t negotiate for that, that’s just the set level. To put that into context at the same museum (according to glass door for an average as this fluctuates!) an archaeologist might be on something between £19-22k.

So why was my pay so much higher? Well to be blunt, because my role exists outside of the sector. If you work in something like museum PR, marketing, or events, having knowledge of history, collections and how the sector works is of course a bonus, but it isn’t necessary. You’re expected to know your area and because all these roles exist outside of museums, your generally paid the going rate that most companies would pay a PR, marketing officer or events organiser.

But that fair pay all goes to shit when it comes to the people who are the very glue of a museum. The people who look after the collections, put together exhibitions, care for archives and are the boots on the ground, making people fall in love with a museum.

The reason for this low pay is simple but bleak.

According to Fair Museums Jobs

‘why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level? 

Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect
Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect

What makes this worse are that The Museum Association guidelines for pay are kind of screwing people over. For those becoming a curatorial or conservation assistant, with a post graduate degree (or decent experience working in collections, which they probably had to do for free FYI) The Museums Association advises they are paid a just 17-22k. Break that down to an hourly rate and its £8.17. Which you guessed it, is below the real living wage!

Whilst museums can get away with paying people a pittance, they will. Which is why strikes like this are so needed. As Fair Museums Jobs put it:

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!”

Change is a coming, but it is happening slowly. 

The Science Museum Group have now agreed to pay their lowest paid staff the living wage (and London living wage for those based in their flagship museum) they won’t actually do this until April 2020. Which means months more of a quarter of their staff having to just about scrape by.

In addition, The Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108, which is fantastic! Recognising all the years of work and training these people do. BUT, it’s just a suggestion, museums don’t actually have to do it. And lets be real, until they are made to, they won’t.

strike, from Prospect twitter
Striker, courtesy of Prospect

So what happens now?

Well it looks like industrial action will have to continue. And we can expect to see more museum workers unionising and going on strike in the coming months. At least until museums realise these three key things:

  1. ‘What I did for love’ is not a decent hiring strategy – This is not A Chorus Line. Do museum workers love what they do? Yes. Can you keep on depending on being able to retain amazing staff based off of the love of museums rather than actual pay? No. Sadly you can’t feed a family on passion.
  2. You can’t diversify museums with low pay like this in place – It’s a fact that museums are facing a diversity crisis, especially in areas like curatorial and conservation. A huge reason for this is that the extraordinary low pay for entry level roles in these departments simply prices out many candidates from low income and minority backgrounds.
  3. People outside the sector are realising how shady this is – These strikes are drawing attention, not just at the museum sites but in the national press. The longer this is drawn out, the less people will want to come and drop their cash at a place that doesn’t care about it’s staff.

 

Fair Museum Jobs kindly gave as the below statement on this issue. It’s definitely worth a read: 

“The Science Museum Group and Museum of London strikes highlight the fundamental issue that many jobs in museums and heritage just do not pay enough to live on. In such a highly qualified sector, where expensive post-grad qualifications are constantly deemed essential; that many organisations pay 25% of their staff less than their directors annual bonus is ridiculous.

“So why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level?

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!

“Some organisations are leading the charge for this: Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108 – recognising the training conservators go through before their first job. 

“In short, if you want highly qualified, accredited, candidates, you must be willing to pay for them.

“More work could also be done by the Museums Association; their salary guidelines are a good starting point and we would welcome some robust implementation of these across the sector. Funding bodies should also take a look at their policies and requirements: for example, we would love to see National Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and Arts Council England add salary and recruitment requirements for project posts.

“Nobody goes into this sector to become a millionaire, but all of us deserve to be fairly recompensed for our time, skills, knowledge and qualifications.
Fair Museum Jobs campaigns on fair and transparent recruitment, pay and jobs in museums and heritage. Find out more about our manifesto here: https://fairmuseumjobs.wordpress.com/manifesto/ “

 

 

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One comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I work at a museum run by a local authority, and though my pay is abysmal because I’m part time, my base salary is £3000-5000 more than it would be at a similar job at one of London’s major museums, mainly because my salary is on par with other council salaries rather than museum ones. I’m desperate to find a new job, but it’s difficult since I would almost certainly be taking a pay cut and spending a lot more on travel. The museum sector has gone on this way for far too long, and it shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

    Like

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