A group of 27 art educators have taken the National Gallery to court in a landmark public sector gig economy case.

The group claim unfair dismissal and want to be recognised as employees, not freelancers. Many worked at the London gallery for decades, but said they were released last year without consultation or benefits because they were classed as self-employed.

Corbyn backs campaign

The campaign is supported by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. 'I’m very concerned about the number of people in this country who are frankly bogusly self-employed,' he said in a meeting with the claimants. 'In reality, they are employees of big companies or organisations all over the country.'

No employment rights

Although the National Gallery insist the group of art educators were self-employed, they claim they were workers and therefore entitled to associated protection and rights. 'We were paid through the National Gallery payroll, taxed at source and wore staff passes,' they said in a statement on crowdfunding website CrowdJustice back in July. '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, including holiday pay and sick pay.' The group is suing the gallery for unfair dismissal and claim that the National Gallery has discriminated against members in respect to longevity of service, sex and age.

Landmark case

One of the claimants, Marie-Therese Ross, who worked at the gallery for 24 years, said the case is important because it sets a precedent for other public sector workers in similar situations. 'This isn’t just about us,' she said. 'Our case highlights the exploitation of precarious workers across the arts and beyond. We are standing up for fair employment rights and calling for our public arts organisations to value the expertise and experience at the heart of their education programmes.' The group’s case also covers the gallery’s failure to consult over redundancy, discrimination relating to trade union membership and not allowing employees to take or get paid for statutory annual leave entitlement.

Another gig economy debate?

A statement from the National Gallery said it has not acted unlawfully and that all workers were consulted about impending changes to the organisation’s working model. It added that the case should not be likened to the gig economy debate and that it had made a concerted effort to give its workers greater stability. 'The ‘gig economy’ cases have arisen out of organisations opting to offer people ad hoc employment, zero hours contracts and no opportunity for job security,' it said. 'We have taken a deliberate choice to move towards a model that offers people secure employment, with additional pension and worker benefits.'

The 10-day hearing will continue into next week and a ruling on the case is expected on 7 December.

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