Museum attendants bring first ever class action against the Vatican

Two people point in interest at frescos, under an ornate ceiling and wearing facemasks
Visitors see one of Raphael's rooms in the Vatican Museum - Andreas Solaro/AFP

Museum workers are suing the Vatican after they were forced to pay back lockdown salaries.

In the first-ever class action against the Catholic institution, 49 employees of Vatican Museums, mostly attendants, are challenging the monthly repayments they have been making since Covid restrictions were lifted.

“There is no social safety net in the Vatican, so in the event of a crisis, like what happened during Covid, the employees are held responsible,” Laura Sgro, the lawyer representing the employees, told The Telegraph.

“There are many critical issues.”

The museums closed at the start of the pandemic in early 2020, and after a couple of fits and starts reopened with strict rules in 2021. It’s not clear whether staff were on full pay while they were shut.

In a letter to Cardinal Fernando Vergez Alzaga, the President of the Governorate of Vatican City, the employees also complained about unfair working conditions, inadequate compensation for overtime, risks to their health and safety, and poor management.

An overhead view of a large spiral staircase, with tourists
Tourists climb Bramante's Staircase in the Vatican Museum - Karl Weatherly/Digital Vision

“Most Reverend Eminence, the working conditions harm the dignity and health of every worker. Bad management is evident and it would be even more serious if it was driven by the sole logic of obtaining greater earnings,” said the workers, according to Italian daily, Corriere della Sera.

Last year around seven million tourists visited the Vatican’s 54 galleries, which have about 20,000 works of art on display to the public, including classical sculptures, Renaissance art, and Egyptian artefacts.

With tickets starting from around €20 (£17.30), the museums are a major source of revenue for the Holy See.

The museums recently extended their opening hours to cater to growing demand. Footfall next year is expected to be especially high, when an estimated 30 million visitors descend on Rome for the holy Jubilee – a special “year of grace”.

“The Pope talks about rights, we are treated like a simple commodity,” the employees complained in their petition.

They raised concerns about health and safety, saying their contact with up to 30,000 visitors each day exposed them to greater risk. Unions are not allowed in Vatican City.

An exterior view of St Peter's Bascilica in Vatican City, Rome
The Vatican declined to comment on the legal case - Laurie Chamberlain/Corbis

“The flow of people is immense and the workers are asking for compensation for their health, since they are in contact with many people every day,” Ms Sgro said.

The Vatican Museums declined to comment on Sunday.  Media reports said the Vatican had 30 days to respond to the complaints before a formal judicial process began.

If the conciliation procedure fails, the case can then be brought to a Vatican Court.

Ms Sgro is also the lawyer for the family of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old girl who vanished from the streets of Rome in mysterious circumstances in 1983.

Her father was employed by the Holy See and last year the Vatican announced a new inquiry into her unsolved disappearance.