A group of 27 artists and art historians are auctioning off original works of art to raise funds for their lawsuit against London’s National Gallery. The group says they were improperly classified as freelance contractors, which cost them employment benefits, and that they were unfairly terminated last October.
The claimants, whose case was heard at a preliminary hearing in July, had been working in the Education Department at the gallery on a freelance basis, but now want to be officially recognized as employees (or at least “workers”) so that they can retroactively receive the benefits accorded to that status: minimum wage, paid vacation and sick days, and protection from dismissal.
“We are taking a stand against the exploitation of ‘bogus’ self-employment in the arts,” the group says in a statement, explaining that they had all worked for the gallery for between 10 and 40 years, effectively as employees. “We have reason to believe the Gallery has made deliberate attempts over several years to evade awarding us fair employment status.”
“We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source and wore staff passes,” the group says. “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.”
The 27 former freelancers, which are now calling themselves the “NG27,” were dismissed as part of a restructuring of the Education Department that saw the gallery take on a smaller number of in-house educators on reduced salary and terms.
They are currently crowdfunding their legal funds. As of this writing, their campaign has reached £38,076 of its £65,000 stretch target, with 32 days to go. They are also launching an online auction of original artworks at 6pm tomorrow, August 29. The works by NG27 artists and their friends will be inspired by paintings in the National Gallery collection and will be sold on eBay for 24 hours, with prices starting at £27.
“It is our understanding that the claims have arisen out of the Gallery’s wish to change from offering ad hoc work to offering more secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits,” read a statement from the National Gallery. The institution said it had consulted the group of 27 for their views between October 2017 and January 2018 and then offered the jobs to all of the freelancers last year. “We still have vacancies which are available, although unfortunately not all of the group have expressed an interest in these.”
“The Gallery is not yet in receipt of the details of each complaint, but believes that we have acted both lawfully and fairly in changing our service provision to one of secure employment,” the statement said.
Following last month’s preliminary hearing, the case is slated to heard by an employment tribunal for eight days beginning November 26. It could set a precedent for other workers in the public sector “gig” economy. Although independent contractor claims in the private sector have gone to court before, notably with Uber and Deliveroo drivers, this is the first case of its kind involving a public entity. The National Gallery is funded by the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
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