“If I can’t afford to live, I have to make myself heard”

Faced with in-work poverty and stagnant wages British Museum staff have found themselves forced to the picket line to fight for their future as cultural workers.

Staff working for the institution, chaired by George Osbourne, have said they are claiming benefits to supplement their full-time wages whilst others rely on food banks.

Jasmine Lota, 39, has worked at the British Museum for 16 years as a Visitor and Safety Assistant Manager.

She has not had a decent pay rise in over 10 years, and currently finds herself unable to pay her bills.

She told LFF: “It’s really hard coming to work and hearing colleagues stories of claiming benefits at work, it’s just not right.

“I can’t pay my bills anymore, it’s tough to work under that kind of pressure and to perform our jobs to the best of our ability because we love our jobs, but always at the back of your mind is how am I going to survive at the end of the month.

“We need a wage that makes us thrive and not just survive.”

British Museum staff from the visitor service and security team are in the midst of a week-long half-term strike.

They’re asking for a 10% pay rise and a reversal of the cuts made by the government to their redundancy terms, as well as to stop overpaying on their pensions.

Staff have so far been offered a maximum 4% pay rise, which remains way below the current cost of inflation.

Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union who represent the workers, said the union had given management weeks to make a better offer in the run up to half-term.

A combination of staff using foodbanks and struggling to get to work under cost-of-living pressures led staff members like Jasmine to say enough is enough.

“It’s a real desperate situation and we are disappointed for taking action over half-term, but we’re left with no other choice,” said Jasmine.

“We feel like we’ve been taken for granted by the government and our management.”

She added the museum were not doing enough to keep hold of valued and talented staff, who were leaving the institution over poor pay.

Humza Asif, 24, a Visitor and Safety Assistant at the museum, said it was ‘heart-breaking’ to hear colleagues struggling with the cost-of living crisis.

“It’s not a decent lifestyle you’re being forced to live,” said Humza. “You struggle financially to get to work, struggle to get home, you can’t afford to rent let alone ever buy a house or car.

“Any sort of hopes you have for the future just go down the drain.”

This was Humza’s first time joining a union and taking strike action, which he said was a hard decision, but one that made him feel part of a national campaign of workers fighting for fair pay.

“Needs must at this point. We need the government to understand we’re not going to take this lying down and we are fighting for our rights because we deserve a pay rise.”

He added: “We love working inside such a beautiful museum with beautiful items and we love interacting with visitors and sharing information we’ve studied, so it’s really difficult to be forced to come on the streets.

“But if I can’t afford to live, I have to make myself heard.”

He also commented on the surprisingly positive reaction they have had from visitors hoping to attend the museum, which has had to limit its opening times due to the strike action.

Visitors were apparently joining staff in holding posters and chanting on the picket line.

“Once we explained our condition and why we were being forced to take such drastic action they were up in arms with us,” said Humza.

“That really warmed the heart, you’d expect people to be a bit displeased but no, it’s all positivity and love.”

In her 16 years at the museum, Jasmine has witnessed drastic government cuts to the culture sector which she said hit the museum ‘really hard’.

She saw cuts to jobs, salaries and staff terms and conditions as a direct result of slashes to spending in the sector, which made staff feel undervalued in their roles as cultural workers.

“Culture is a human right and we want to make sure we can deliver that when people come to visit us.

“At the moment that’s just not possible, and that really hurts.

“The government says culture’s important for the economy but it doesn’t feel like that when our reality is something else.”

Fran Heathcote, President of PCS, told LFF that the situation for their members was ‘shocking’ and added that the 15th March strike action day would be ‘massive’.

She said: “I think the public perception of civil servants is that we are quite well paid and quite comfortable, when in fact the reality is that our members are really struggling to make ends meet now.

“This dispute is really important, as are all the disputes coming up in the weeks ahead.

“All our members covered by the mandate will be taking action on the 15th March and we think that’s going to be massive.”

So far over 100,000 civil servants will walk out on March 15th, along with teachers in England and Wales.

Jeremy Corbyn is set to join the British Museum picket line tomorrow, Thursday morning, as workers with the PCS union continue their targeted and sustained strike action throughout the month.

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

(Photo credit: Hannah Davenport)

Left Foot Forward’s trade union reporting is supported by the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust

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