Cleaners at Sotheby’s have been barred from working at the auction house after they staged a protest asking for better sick pay terms in their contracts with their employer Servest.
Workers and supporters staged a demonstration outside the auctioneer on Bond Street last night as it played host to the sale of multi-million pound contemporary art pieces by artists Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon.
The Antiques Trade Gazette publication, which attended the auction, said around 100 people were at the protest, which was loud but peaceful.
But this morning United Voices of the World (UVW), the independent trade union that organises the workers, said all four cleaners who attended last night’s demonstration were denied entry to work.
Petros Elia, the union’s general secretary, told the Independent that a representative of Servest, Sotheby’s’ cleaning contractor, which employs the cleaners, had stopped the workers at the door.
“He stopped them at the entrance and said ‘give me your passes, you’re no longer welcome at Sotheby’s – we've been instructed by Sotheby’s to not allow you on site’
“Our argument is that Sotheby’s is massively, extremely wealthy company. Contractual sick-pay is not a crazy thing,” Mr Elia said.
All UK workers are entitled to at least statutory sick pay of £88.45 a week, only taking effect after four 'waiting days'. The cleaners are asking for contractual sick-pay with better conditions from their employer Servest.
In February a campaign by the workers won an increase in the living wage.
Sotheby's said the workers had been "suspended" and not sacked. A spokesperson for Sotheby's claimed that protesters had attempted to assault people attending the auction, a claim denied by the union and not reported in trade press accounts of the evening.
"Sotheby’s cleaners have not been sacked. Four Sotheby’s cleaners who participated in a 1 July 2015 protest in which demonstrators attempted to assault clients have been suspended.
"The contract between Servest and Sotheby’s cleaners clearly states that those employed on Sotheby’s premises shall have appropriate qualifications and competences.
"Sotheby’s retains the right to restrict access to protect clients and property from cleaners participating in inappropriate behaviour."
UVW says the contractor Servest had previously written to staff warning them that demonstrating would be regarded as misconduct.
Most expensive artworks sold at auction
Most expensive artworks sold at auction
1/16 'Women of Algiers' by Pablo Picasso - $179m
'Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O')' by Picasso broke the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it sold for $179m at Christie's in New York in May 2015.
2/16 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' by Francis Bacon - $142m
Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud' was the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction before Picasso beat it, fetching a record-breaking price of $142 million in November 2013.
3/16 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch - $119.9m
Edvard Munch’s 'The Scream' fetched the former record price of $119.9 million in May 2012, when it was sold as part of a modern, contemporary and impressionist art sale by Sotheby’s, New York.
4/16 'Walking Man I' by Alberto Giacometti - $104.3m
Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti’s 'Walking Man I' sold for $104.3 million at Sotheby’s in February 2010, almost four times its asking price.
5/16 'Nude, Green Leaves' by Pablo Picasso - $106.5m
Pablo Picasso’s 'Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust' fetched $106.5 at Christie’s in May 2010. The painting of Picasso’s lover Marie-Therese Walter was created in a single day in 1932.
6/16 'Boy With A Pipe' by Pablo Picasso - $104.1m
'Boy With A Pipe' by Pablo Picasso fetched $104.1 million in New York in 2004 to become the first $100 million painting. The painting depicts a Rose Period portrait of a young child called 'Little Louis' who would hang around his studio in Paris.
7/16 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II' by Gustav Klimt - $87.9
'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II' by Gustav Klimt (painter of 'The Kiss') sold for $87.9 million at Christie’s auction house in November 2006. Adele was the only model whom Klimt painted twice.
8/16 'Triptych' by Francis Bacon - $85.9
Russian billionaire and one-time richest man in the world Roman Abramovich took home Bacon’s 1976 'Triptych' for $85.9 million at the peak of the market in May 2008.
9/16 'Black Fire I' by Barnett Newman - $84.2m
'Black Fire I' by Barnett Newman was sold for $84.2 in May 2014
10/16 'Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet' by Vincent Van Gogh - $82.5m
'Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet' by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh sold for $82.5 million in 1990. There are two versions of the portrait, both painted in June 1890 at Auvers.
11/16 'Triple Elvis' [Ferus Type] by Andy Warhol - $81.9m
'Triple Elvis' [Ferus Type] by Andy Warhol was sold for $81.9 in November 2014
12/16 'Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards' by Francis Bacon - $80.8m
'Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards' by Francis Bacon was sold for $80.8 in May 2014
13/16 'Orange, Red, Yellow' by Mark Rothko - $72.8
Mark Rothko’s 1961 painting 'Orange, Red, Yellow' went for $86.9 million at Christie’s in May last year, smashing a previous Rothko record of $72.8 million.
14/16 'Untitled' (1952) by Mark Rothko - $66.2m
'Untitled' (1952) by Mark Rothko sold for $66.2m in May 2014
15/16 'Spring (Le Printemps)' by Edouard Manet - $65.1m
'Spring (Le Printemps)' by Edouard Manet sold for $65.1m in November 2014
16/16 'Balloon Dog' by Jeff Koons - $58.4m
Jeff Koons' 'Balloon Dog' sold for a record $58.4m, becoming the most expensive sculpture ever
“They wrote to all the cleaners and porters and said if you protest it will be considered misconduct and it will be addressed accordingly,” Mr Elia said.
“Last week Servest called them into a meeting and they said ‘Sothebys may not welcome you back onsite’. We never presumed that they would stoop so shamelessly low, and do what they’ve just done, which is outrageous.”
Recent surges in art prices have led to increases in Sotheby's profits and share prices in the first part of 2015. The firm had a net income of £3.3m in the first quarter of the year, according to financial news service Bloomberg.
In a press statement issued in response to enquiries about this story, Sotheby's said it was “among a very small number of companies who pay their cleaning contractors the London Living Wage” and that Servest, “in line with industry practice, provides Statutory Sick Pay for its employees”.
The contractor Servest was contacted for comment on this story but did not immediately issue a response.