Lisa Kilbride often brings her students on visits to museums in the city like 14 Henrietta Street, she says.
That one, a tenement-turned-museum in the north inner-city, resonated with her students especially, said Kilbride, who teaches at the Dublin Adult Learning Centre (DALC) on Mountjoy Square. “A lot of them grew up in tenements,” she said.
So when Kilbride saw, in late August, a post from the museum’s owners, looking to recruit “visitor experience assistants”, she thought it might be a good fit for some of her students looking for work.
“There were some who are moving on from our [community employment] scheme who were very interested in history, and they might be interested in this,” she said.
But as Kilbride clicked in to look for more details, she saw that the assistants on the panel would be classed as self-employed, she says.
Dublin City Council Culture Company – which operates the museum – was set up by, funded by, and is linked to Dublin City Council, she says.
But these positions weren’t offering the same benefits as an employee would get, like sick pay and pension contributions.
“I was astonished that this is a company where there is funding coming from an arm of the local government,” says Kilbride.
The CEO of the Dublin City Council Culture Company, Iseult Dunne, says she gets this concern. But they offer flexibility to contractors, because the company has to stay flexible as the workload can surge depending on the season, she said.
It’s not the first time that council-connected facilities have been criticised for their hiring practices. In 2020, councillors complained about job conditions for lifeguards at a city centre pool.
What’s the job?
The job description for visitor experience assistants says that successful applicants would get added to a panel, and work in 14 Henrietta Street and Richmond Barracks – which the company also operates – as well as on its engagement programmes and associated venues.
Panel members would supervise front of house, do some general admin and operational support, and also some customer service, said the listing, which does not share any rates of pay.
Tasks would also include front-desk supervision, and overseeing bookings and the ticketing systems, it says.
Visitor experience assistants would also be responsible for some aspects of financial administration, such as the daily cash up and reconciliation, as well as monitoring and reporting on audio-visual equipment, IT, security systems and issues in the buildings.
The open call says the panel would consist of people available for full or part-time paid freelance projects and functions across the company’s sites, within its wider engagement programmes and associated venues.
Kilbride, the DALC tutor, said she was so disappointed to see that these assistant roles – similar to an open call for tour guides – are to be via a “contract for service”, wherein a worker is an independent contractor.
It limits who can apply, she says.
“They were placed on a panel for people who would have to be sole traders,” she said. “That would be of no use to anyone who is trying to get off a job-seekers payment or something.”
The offer of flexibility
Dublin City Council Culture Company was established in March 2018 under the aegis of the council, with some councillors acting as board members.
At the time, then head of planning Richard Shakespeare said that part of the reason for setting up the company was to improve conditions for contractors that the council works with.
Dunne, the company’s CEO, defends hiring freelancers for its panel of visitor experience assistants, saying the company is flexible in the way it works.
As such, it also offers a lot of flexibility to those it employs full-time, part-time and freelance, she says. “There is a bunch of movement, I suppose.”
In the enclosed garden behind Richmond Barracks in Inchicore, just before noon on Tuesday, she says that, depending on the specific roles, there are a lot of benefits for employees.
She lists these benefits off: working from home, pensions, bike-to-work schemes, and income protection insurance. “There is all that kind of stuff,” she says.
“But there is also, ‘Do you have your Sundays free, because we have to open buildings?” she says. “We run seven days a week. We do evenings. So we would have flexible roles and we would be a flexible company.”
Assistants on a panel are trained in, and added to a roster at the start of a month, she says. “It’s seasonal, or occasional work sometimes. That’s the nature of it.”
In its open call, the company says that its panel of visitor experience assistants will be sole traders “and can be offered long-term or short-term contracts for service when or as a need arises”.
A panel member has the option to accept or decline contracts when offered, it says. “Being on this panel does not guarantee that you will be offered work available to this panel.”
Their structure consists of employees and freelancers, Dunne says, with, on a given day, an employed Visitor Experience Coordinator working with a freelance assistant. “And two guides, one of whom is an employee. The other who isn’t.”
“On other days, it might be more than that,” she says.
Sundays would always have the support of a panel, she says. “Probably each day we’d have a shift. Four-hour shifts, usually. That’s an average, without a spike.”
Promising or precarious?
The assistants who have a contract for service, she says, don’t get paid holidays or paid sick days. “We also don’t pay their PRSI either. They do their taxes, and that’s outlined in the contract.”
Where it is viable, she says, the company has looked to transition workers from freelance contracts to employed positions. “Where possible, or where it was wished to happen.”
A similar open call for visitor experience assistants was run in the summer of 2022, says the company’s head of communications, Darragh Doyle.
Twelve people were appointed to the panel, he said. “One dropped out. Eleven were offered Contract for Services. Six took us up on that, and all of those six are still with us.”
Dunne says: “And two have been turned into employees.”
Labour Councillor Darragh Moriarty, a member of the council’s arts committee, says he’d have concerns around the assertion that flexibility is a benefit to an employee. “Flexibility also suits an employer in this situation.”
Using flexible positions and freelancers to deliver day-to-day operations in these buildings raises serious questions, Moriarty says.
“If it is for surge capacity when there’s additional events on, I think a panel like this could work well,” he said.
“But if it is for the more day-to-day nuts and bolts of the organisation running, I think those staff would need much more iron-clad employment contracts,” he says.
In February 2020, members of Dublin City Council raised concerns for lifeguards at the council-owned Sean McDermott Street swimming pool, after it had advertised some positions that treated them as contractors.
Swim Ireland, who posted the ads, said that it engaged self-employment contractors because it only operated the facility for 2.5 days a week, and to provide flexibility as there were no regular shift patterns.
Moriarty says local authorities are expected to offer more robust employment contracts.
Dunne however, says that while the Dublin City Council Culture Company is absolutely linked to the council, it is a separate company.
“Dublin City Council does not employ our staff. We do. We are a company registered with the company’s registration office,” she said.
“But yes, we’re funded by Dublin City Council, and yes, we were set up by Dublin City Council, and yes, this is a Dublin City Council-owned building that we are operating in,” she says. “So we are absolutely linked. But our jobs are not Dublin City Council jobs.”
Moriarty says the two entities are separate and distinct. “But when you look at the people on the board, and who support the company from an advisory point of view, it is stacked full of Dublin City Council representatives.”
The company’s board includes two councillors, the deputy city librarian, and a principal officer in the Department of Housing. It is chaired by the council’s acting chief executive, Richard Shakespeare.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council did not respond to queries sent last Thursday, asking why a company linked to the council was hiring contractors for the visitor experience assistant panel, rather than staff.
Cat O’Driscoll, a Social Democrats councillor who is also a board member, said the company is good for anyone who likes the idea of flexible work and is people-centred.
“Yes, they are not permanent roles. But if there is a need for permanent roles, the board will definitely look at that,” she said.
The format is working well for a company with a wide breadth of activity, she says. “And that activity changes nearly on a day-to-day basis.”