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Educators Take London’s National Gallery to Court in Case over Workers’ Rights

Twenty-seven artists and lecturers, who claim they were unfairly dismissed by the National Gallery in London last October, have taken the museum to court in an attempt to expose the exploitation of cultural workers in the UK’s public sector.

During a ten-day employment tribunal hearing that began on Monday morning, the claimants—who collectively go by NG27—are arguing that the gallery wrongly classified them as self-employed freelancers, rather than employees, and denied them benefits. All members of NG27 had worked in the gallery’s education department on a freelance basis for at least ten years. The longest-serving claimant, James Heard, worked at the museum for forty-five years.

“We have reason to believe the Gallery has made deliberate attempts over several years to evade awarding us fair employment status,” the former workers wrote in an online statement. “We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source and wore staff passes. We were required to attend staff training and team meetings and received formal reviews of our work. But we had no job security or employment rights.” 

Members of NG27 are fighting to retroactively receive benefits, including wages, paid vacation and sick days, and protection from dismissal. The educators have crowdfunded $91,000 thus far to cover their legal costs for the case. 

In response to the controversy, a spokesperson for the National Gallery told The Telegraph that the majority of the claimants are still providing services to the institution and others are now employed or have accepted new contracts. “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,” they said in a statement. “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.” 

The representative also said that jobs were offered to all of the existing freelance service providers from last year and that there are still vacancies, since not all of the members expressed interest in the offers. According to NG27, only eight permanent contracts were offered to the group on “greatly reduced salary and terms.”

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour Party MP Stella Creasy have expressed support for NG27’s campaign. “The decisions of the National Gallery and the ramifications of this case go far beyond what happens to the twenty-seven individuals who are taking on this class action,” Creasy said. “It’s really the test about whether our public services are behaving in an ethical fashion. Not just in the way that they pay people, but how they treat people when they want to make changes—and what this means in the world today when more and more people are being classed as ‘self-employed.’”

The judge will rule on whether the group should be considered temporary workers or permanent employees on December 7.