Monday, 18 September 2017

Jenny // Museum Shop Assistant

Every hour, hundreds of frenzied customers squeezed through the entrance to the cramped museum shop like a lanced boil. They queued to fondle the £300 key rings locked in the display cabinet. I egged them on, it looked fabulous with the Hermes bag (it didn’t), and one swipe of their Amex Platinum a part of this momentous exhibition could be theirs. I waded through the scrum to hang up delicate feather necklaces, immediately destroyed by grabby manicured hands. I’d place them back on the stand, knowing that in minutes they would be on the floor again.

This was nothing new, just the typical grievances of working in customer service. Due perhaps to age and naivety, I was proud I got to be part of this blockbuster exhibition, much grander and more important than I was—and get paid less than London Living Wage for the privilege. One day a man vomited near the exhibition exit. Hey, I thought, stood astride the pile of sick, cheerily guiding customers around it, at least I’m working near the art!

Shift patterns were nightmarish, one colleague regularly worked ten days in a row without a break. People got sick, with the stress of it all I broke out in eczema all over my face, a typical symptom when I’m having a very bad time.  Shop assistants limped around the floor; braces strapped to various limbs, as the strain of lugging piles of chic grey coffee table books, like slabs of concrete, caused sustained injuries. We took it in turns to stand in the dark corridor, away from the monotony, the overpriced tat, the heat, the fluorescent lighting, and the Schindler’s List theme played on the hour, every hour. I used it to breathe, slap my eczema and maybe have a quick cry.

The worst were the abrupt announcements of private events (organised for auction houses or credit card companies, usually), entirely pointless as the attendees received gift bags and never bought anything. Regularly at 4pm I’d find out my shift had turned from 9 hours to 13, and I was expected to work without complaint, without additional remuneration.

We knew the museum was raking in the big bucks on the shop earnings alone and this was unfair. Our contract stated that any hours worked outside normal opening times would be paid time and a half. A braver soul than I posed this question to our manager, who then spoke to the retail manager, a tightly wound corporate schoolmarm called Mimi. Mimi was not a popular figurehead, having refused prior requests to raise our wages to London Living Wage, in line with other museums.

Mimi spoke to the museum directors about the salary issue, and reported back that late nights were part of the expected hours of the exhibition run and we would be paid the usual rate. So far the exhibition had earned 2.7 million pounds—to pay four shop assistants time-and-a-half for the night shift cost less than one of the limited edition scarves.

Near the end, there was a big press release announcing the record-breaking success of the exhibition, and to celebrate the exhibition would run overnight for the last two weekends. This was announced to us by Mimi, who read from a prepared piece of paper, that each of us was required to work at least one overnight shift. We were to receive no extra pay.

The rebellion began with hushed gatherings near the t-shirts, where it was quietest. We bought overpriced warm Shiraz and plotted our revenge in the park. Adelia—a Parisian with an inborn aptitude for protest—put the groundwork in and wrote the letter, signed from all twenty of us. No one would be singled out. We’d post this in the form of an online petition. If our demands were refused, we would stage a walk out, escalating to strike action if things got really bad.

Adelia posted it on the Friday and we shared everywhere, hitting about 60 signatures in the first night. It was tricky as our contract stated we could not damage the image of the museum or of the exhibition brand, so there was no way we could use their images.  But we needed something to grab everyone’s attention.

On Saturday, hungover and angry, I had a silly brainwave. We couldn’t use the image, but I could myself look like the poster. I grabbed my weapons— a chalky red lipstick and an accidental purchase of Porcelain foundation, the type that suits no-one. This was the result:

We amassed about 150 signatures by the end of the weekend. On Monday Adelia was absent from the shop floor, summoned for questioning by Mimi, frothing and rabid, determined to find a head to mount on a spike.

I was interviewed first by HR, completely shitting it obviously. A nice blonde lady asked me some bog-standard questions and another nice blonde lady silently transcribed, all of our Facebook profiles place in a neat pile between us. I answered her questions dutifully, sticking to our story, and returned to Schindler’s List and feather necklaces.

Although our demands for extra pay were ignored, the overnight shifts were downgraded from mandatory to optional. Rather conveniently we all received a small bonus to thank us for such a marvellous job. No one received punishment as everyone interviewed stated that we wrote the letter and planned the petition together. As a result, we all received an “unofficial warning,” which basically means shit all, as it didn’t go on our employee record. Mimi left shortly after that to a smaller museum in the Home Counties. You can find her presentation about offering employees other incentives in place of pay rises online. To be fair, during the overnight shifts she did provide us with several bags of sweets, so she isn’t a complete cunt.

Months later, my crusty eczema a distant memory, I saw one of my ex-colleagues had updated her Facebook profile. A full wine glass in hand, her fingers glittering with numerous rings, her shoulders draped in one of the limited edition scarves. I know for a fact there’s no fucking way she’d paid for it.