One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, pt 2

This week there have been a couple of job stories which have been blowing up on twitter, and they tell you quite a lot about where we’re at as a sector.

Two Steps Back. 

In addition to the amazing National Trust opportunity I wrote about in part one, a couple of other ‘opportunities’ have been brought to my attention on twitter this week. They are not only prime examples of troubling employment practices in our sector, but interesting case studies in what can happen when someone decides to call out such bad practice on social media.

The first example, shared by Marta Zboralska on twitter, has now been taken down from the V&A’s recruitment pages, but luckily she included a screenshot of the ad in her tweet:

The museum was recruiting for an unpaid, 2 day a week role for a minimum of 3 months. The role was designed, according to the ad, to ‘give volunteers a good understanding of the complex workings of a national museum and to enhance their practical museum skills in view of pursuing a career in the sector.’ Duties would include ‘carrying out day to day collections care and management tasks’, and the lucky volunteer ‘may be required to write interpretive material’. To be considered for this unpaid work, candidates were required to have or be working towards a postgraduate qualification.

The second example, from the National Trust this time, was shared by Emma Shepley and the ad is still up:

This role is for a ‘maximum’ of 22.5 hours a week, to last for 6 months. The intern will ‘lead on bringing the community together to plan and deliver a Fun Palaces Event at Morden Hall Park’

The reaction to the two tweets from the organisations involved was quite different: at the V&A, the ad was taken down and director Tristram Hunt responded via twitter:

At the National Trust, the official account responded rather differently:

On the face of it, the two roles are quite similar, so why was one immediately deleted and the other not? I naively thought at first that it was because Marta’s tweet was more widely shared, she tagged the museum’s high profile director, and they might be more afraid of media attention as a result. The fact that the voluntary role required a postgraduate qualification got many people particularly riled up.

Having spent a bit of time on the UK Government website on work placements and internships, I now think the answer is different (and please do correct me if I am wrong, either in the comments or on twitter).

In the document Common best practice code for high quality internships it states that

‘Limited groups are not eligible for the NMW [National Minimum Wage], either through being exempt from the legislation or not being classified as workers. Of specific relevance to internships are:

  • Students undertaking work placements of up to one year as part of a higher education course of study
  • Volunteers – those who are under no obligation to perform work or carry out instructions: they have no contract or formal arrangement and so can come and go as they please; they have no expectation of and do not receive any reward for the work they do.’

To me, neither role seemed to fit the definition of a volunteer exempt from minimum wage. If anything I would have thought the National Trust role was further away from being exempt as it requires the intern to ‘lead’, ‘plan and deliver’ a programme of activity. After a bit more digging however I found that voluntary workers for charities are exempt from minimum wage. This example in the document Minimum wage: work experience and internships almost perfectly describes the National Trust placement:

Example 6: voluntary worker at a charity with a contract for paid expenses

Donna takes up an internship as a charity’s events organiser. She has a contract in which she has agreed to organise certain events for the charity and attend on particular days and times – she is not paid, but travel and lunch expenses are paid back.

Donna does not need to be paid the minimum wage because she is a voluntary worker.

Voluntary workers are workers who are specifically exempt from the minimum wage under National Minimum Wage legislation. To be exempt, they must work for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or statutory body and receive no monetary payments and only limited and specified expenses and benefits.’

So there you go. As a charity, National Trust is well within their rights to offer this role as an unpaid opportunity for a voluntary worker. The V&A on the other hand, may be required to pay the minimum wage to someone doing the advertised role if it was determined that their status was as a worker not a volunteer. I’m not sure exactly what about this advert would mean they did not have volunteer status as defined above, but the minimum 3 month commitment and the ‘reward’ of entry to exhibitions and other staff discounts may be up for debate if the museum was challenged on this status. (Again, this is just what I have surmised from reading the government guidelines, if you know better please share, I want to know!)

In addition to Hunt’s tweet, the official V&A account weighed in with:

The question which many people then asked is, if the position was not in line with V&A policies, how did it get online in the first place? Why was the placement not properly vetted by HR before being advertised? If it had not been called out in a public forum, would it still be open? In my opinion we do not have strict enough legislation about unpaid internships in the UK, so it is incredibly worrying that the guidelines we do have can be sidestepped and ignored until someone calls enough attention to it.

I have been reticent in the past about naming and shaming employers in the museum sector, since it is such a small community and precarious museum workers are likely to be looking for another job sooner rather than later. I think these examples show the importance of knowing your rights and kicking up a fuss if you see something you don’t think is right. Even if posts don’t get taken down as a result, it is worth it to raise awareness of the issue. After all, just because an unpaid placement is legal, it doesn’t mean it is fair, ethical or sustainable.