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  • Published in Analysis
imperial war museum

The Imperial War Museum in London. Photo: Wikipedia

The privatisation of visitor services and security staff at the Imperial War Museum has been an utter failure

Three years ago this month, Imperial War Museum (IWM) visitor services and security staff, who greet, assist and care for the Museums’ two million-plus annual visitors, were officially informed that they were being contracted out to a private company, Shield Guarding. The transfer was to take place in April 2014 and the decision had been reached by IWM on grounds of “effectiveness, efficiencies and also opportunities for staff development.” The move coincided with reductions in government funding.

Now employed by Noonan Services, following the collapse of IWM’s chosen contractor, Shield, IWM staff face job cuts, zero-hour contracts, limited rights of sick pay or annual leave pay, deskilling of roles, and also the possibility of further upheaval if the company is sold by its private equity owner.

The privatisation, just before the major re-opening of IWM London, had been opposed by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union on the basis “that gifting this work to a profit-making company will lead to jobs and standards being cut, and risks a knowledge-drain from these highly prized visitor attractions.”

IWM staff were assured by IWM management that TUPE employment law and other regulations meant that their existing contracts, with civil service pension, annual leave and contractual sick pay, amongst other benefits, were protected for a number of years.

Meanwhile, Shield, in their tender proposal to IWM’s decision-makers, announced their plans to drive down costs through ”reduction in staff numbers; the benefits of providing additional staff from their (Shield) reserve and support teams; and the natural turnover in staff will enable them to employ on their terms and not IWM terms (estimated that this could save £6-8,000 per post).”

Administration

Shield Guarding had no visitor services experience but were awarded the £10-11 million, three-year contract, with an option of a two-year extension. Concerns were raised about the company’s use of zero-hour contracts – and consequent reduction in availability of sick and annual leave pay – to drive down costs and staff rights. They were, nonetheless, selected over three other security companies – one of which is thought to have been G4S. IWM spent under two months reviewing the final proposals before awarding the contract affecting over 100 employees across five branches.

From FOI documents released by IWM, we know that none of the bidding companies were required to provide projected costs beyond year one of the contract. Nonetheless, IWM concluded that by 2020, the privatisation could save them £1.5 million.

All this fell by the wayside as Shield Guarding went into administration this year after months of rumours fuelled by Shield’s failure to make timely staff pensions contributions and other errors and delays relating to staff pay. The PCS union reported Shield to the Pensions Regulator and we now know that Shield made a £3.5 million loss in 2014.

Takeover

Noonan Services, an Irish-based, Guernsey-owned cleaning, maintenance and security firm, swooped to pick up the pieces following Shield's administration. IWM’s privatisation process had handed over their 100-plus VSA staff to a company that was unlikely to have even submitted a tender for review. Moreover, the company is owned by private equity firm Alchemy Partners, a company that Bloomberg online describes as a “vulture” firm who invest in “distressed” businesses for lucrative gains.

The PCS union’s warnings of cuts to jobs, standards and a knowledge-drain at IWM’s five national branches has come to fruition. The privatisation has contributed to high turnover of staff, with Shield employees on zero-hour or part-time contracts replacing experienced full-time staff. Noonan recruit “Security Officers” as opposed to Visitor Services and Security Assistants for the museum – a clear indication of the de-skilling of the department.

Noonan’s approach to job cuts and redundancies was brought under scrutiny in 2015, when an employee in their financial team in Northern Ireland claimed that the company had sought to dismiss her for taking maternity leave. Noonan settled the claim and undertook to meet with the Equality Commission to review its policies, practices and procedures relating to pregnancy and maternity.

Petition

Noonan’s planned job cuts at IWM prompted the PCS union to launch an online petition calling for an end to privatisation at all the Imperial War Museums. The petition currently has 1,153 signatures supporting the calls for IWM director Diane Lees and other decision-makers to “immediately intervene to stop job cuts planned by private contractor Noonan, put an end to the exploitative practice of Zero Hours Contracts, ensure all staff are paid at least the London Living Wage, start the process of bringing back those services in-house.”

The petition does not mention the situation of IWM’s café and cleaning staff, who have long been privatised. IWM London’s catering contractor, Peyton & Byrne, went into administration in October 2016 and the contract has been picked up by Sodexo, a US-based international conglomerate. The company has been highlighted as a significant user of zero-hour contracts. Servest has just been awarded a five-year contract by IWM to provide ‘soft’ facilities management services including cleaning, front of house, waste and pest solutions to the collective buildings.

IWM staff face continued de-skilling and alienation in their role as they are converted from Visitor Services and Security to purely security guards. An IWM blog post once identified VSA’s as more than security and as the “front line, public face” of IWM.

Before privatisation, staff at HMS Belfast, for example, known as yeoman, had wide responsibilities that not only involved greeting visitors, answering questions, checking tickets and providing audio guides, alongside maintaining security – but also included assisting with cleaning and polishing the ship. Since privatisation, they are no longer involved in any aspect of maintenance of the ship and their role as information-providers is under threat.

The longer-term future of IWM staff remains uncertain as Alchemy Partners, the private equity owner of Noonan, is thought to be planning to sell the business they picked up in 2008, having supported a management buy-out. Reports suggest that they are after €200 million for the business they purchased for €90 million. US group Aramark, a one-time interested party in Noonan before Alchemy’s purchase, is considered a possible buyer.

Private companies’ use of zero-hour contracts receives headlines but the flexibility of such contracts is often an attraction for staff. It is the limited availability of contractual sick pay, annual leave pay and notice period pay that makes such contracts extremely precarious. These harsh terms have been, along with cuts and deskilling, a major driver of staff turnover, knowledge-drain and loss of morale at Imperial War Museums. Visitors will necessarily suffer a reduced service too, contributing to an utter failure of the ongoing privatisation project.

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