Activist Guide: Fair Fringe

We're into the last week of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, a vibrant celebration of culture recognised the world over. However, the festival has been marred by the same issues cropping up in previous years: gruelling conditions, long hours and low pay for workers. To that end, the Fair Fringe Campaign have adapted this guide on exploitative employers at the Fringe for Conter. Know your rights and let's make such conditions a thing of the past at next year's Fringe...

Workers make the Edinburgh Festival, but the festival doesn't always work for them. Festval staff are underpaid, poorly treated and work in precarious conditions. Unfair and unsafe working conditions leave staff out of pocket and out of energy - leading to their physical and mental decline. Often this exploitation isn't even hidden. 

The following guide is a snapshot of some of the shameful practices employers and venues are guilty of in recruiting for Festival workers - practices so common they are now accepted as the status quo. We conclude with a series of recommendations with the aim of beginning to tackle this unacceptable behaviour.

Working Hours

"You will be required in the office from 9am and will be working until 6pm, followed by attending shows in the evening from Monday to Sunday... Although you will be working a seven day week." Gaby Jerrard, Advertising for PR intern.

Workers are entitled to a limit of 48 hours on the working week and at least one day off each week, but job adverts for the Fringe routinely require they commit to a job that exceeds these limits. Although they may waive their rights under the Working Time Regulations Act 1998, employers can't force them to. These adverts place workers in a position where they must allow themselves to be exploited simply to gain employment.

However, workers aged 16-17 are not allowed to opt out of the Working Time Directive. That means they must have at least one day off a week and can't be required to work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. This would mean that by telling people they can only gain the employment if they waive their rights it becomes impossible (and illegal) for under 18s to apply. Such adverts could be in breach of the Equality Act 2010 as they constitute discrimination on grounds of age.

A survey of workers commissioned by the Fringe Society last year showed the extent to which these long hours were rife. Almost half (48%) said they worked more than 48 hours a week and almost a third (31%) said their average shifts were ten or more hours long. Whilst many take up these long hours, this must not be understood as a sign they're willing to - employers create a situation where excessive work becomes normalised. Workers are struturally coerced into waiving their rights through a Fringe wide systemic practice of exploitation.

Pay

Edinburgh is an expensive city to live in at the best of times - but especially during the Fringe. Bars and cafes take advantage of the influx o tourists to increase prices and the cost of accommodation goes through the roof. The Fringe brings over £140 million to Edinburgh - whilst this is good for the city, we ask why is it so disconnected from the paychecks of the people that make the Fringe happen?

Despite this huge flow of capital, an untenable number of Fringe workers are lucky to receive the minimum wage. It's far too common for employers to ask people already on minimum wage to complete overtime. This is often not paid, meaning in real terms people are earning less than the minimum per hour. Even where they are paid this minimum wage, it's nowhere near enough to keep up with the living costs, which during August are 300% higher than normal.

In the Fringe Society's survey, more than 50% of respondents who received an hourly wage said it was less than the then-minimum wage of £7.50. If we take it that many people work the Fringe to enjoy it, how can they do so when earning less than needed to survive? If this is meant to be gainful employment, how can it be when living costs outstrip pay?

There's an enormous amount of money floating around the city during the Fringe and none of the workers who make it happen should be paid less than the real living wage of £8.75. This isn't just because it's what people need to survive but also because it would go some way to recognising the value of every contribution in making the Fringe as incredible as it is.

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"Volunteering"

"The position is voluntary ... what we cannot provide in money, we try to make up for in experience." theSpaceUK, advertising for technical team

Many venues and employers advertise their roles as voluntary. The boast that the positions offer an opportunity to take part in the Fringe and to gain experience in the entertainment and hospitality sectors. But you can't pay bills or buy food with experience. Venues and performers can afford to pay their staff properly. Where they can't, then it's obvious their business model isn't viable. It's simply unacceptable to run a festival of this scale on the back of unpaid labour.

This year C venues are offering 'volunteers' £200 if they work the entire Fringe. This works out to less than 50 pence per hour over the entire festival. This equates to the wage of sweatshops. The Fringe Society's survey shows the extent to which the festival relies on these unpaid workers - their survey showed 30% of workers categorised as volunteers.

Recruitment Practices

Gilded Balloon require applications to send in pictures of themselves as part of the application process. Although this practice isn't illegal, it's likely to create a culture of discrimination against those with 'protected characteristics'. These include: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation (Equality Act, 2010). This is likely to lead to recruitment being infuenced by the subconscious and on a cultural basis. This practice of headshots should be removed in order to avoid this form of discrimination. Venues should be employing people from all backgrounds and taking all steps to ensuring their workforce is as diverse as the people who attend the Fringe.

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Accommodation

"We provide beds/mattresses, but you will need to bring your own pillow, sleeping bag or duvet and towel... In most cases people will be sharing rooms with a number of other people." C Venues, advertising 'voluntary' positions.

Given the difficulties of securing accommodation in Edinburgh for August, many employers make a major point of advertising their ability to provide a place to stay when publicising jobs. However, these "perks" are rarely what they seem. Workers are often crammed in less than satisfactory arrangements, crowded in with many other workers. Last year, according to the Fringe Society's survey, almost a quarter of workers received accommodation as part of their remuneration. The sinister outcome of this seemingly beneficial perk is that workers are trapped in their roles under the threat of homelessness.

It's common for people to take a voluntary position on the understanding it will give them an opportunity to come to Edinburgh and experience the Fringe, only to discover the shifts are too long and too onerous to allow for any meaningful recreational time. Tying accommodation to a role obstructs the ability of workers to leave that role without sacrificing the roof over the heads, thus increasing the precarity of their situation and making bargaining for better working conditions more dangerous.

Deductions

While the practice of deductions from pay isn't strictly illegal, it presents an ethical problem for Edinburgh and its festivals. As discussed above, tying accommodation to roles increases workers' insecurity. Similar deductions elsewhere are equally problematic.

Businesses like Avalon Entertainment, who hold over £600,000 in equity, are willing to pay workers less than the minimum wage after accommodation. This is bare faced exploitation in the name of profit - the provision of accommodation for deductions is a profit exercise. Employers can recruit easily enough without this provision but do this to increase their margins. The Fringe Society survey indicated that 30% of Fringe workers had various items deducted from their pay.

Conclusions & Recommendations

We must not allow the Fringe has to blind us from the abuses that employers are regularly committing. Workers are the backbone of the Fringe across all areas, times and sectors. Sadly, the quality of the condition of that work is being ruined so a small group can profit from our Fringe. These profits aren't passed onto festival-goers but often the bank accounts of corporate CEOs.

This guide is a glimpse into the shameful practices employers use to to staff their venues through underpay, discrimination, tied housing and overwork. We want to see all this end and with it will come a Fringe that's fair and works for all. The Fair Fringe campaign recommends the following to make that possibility a reality:

  1. All venues should sign up to Unite's Fair Hospitality Charter. This commits to paying the real living wage of £8.75 an hour, rest breaks, equal pay for young workers, minimum hour contracts, an anti-sexual harassment policy, paid transport after 12pm, consultation on rota changes, 100% of tips going to staff, trade union access and no unpaid trial shifts.
  2. The website Edinburgh Festival Jobs should refuse to host job adverts that don't meet the criteria in the above charter.
  3. Edinburgh City Council should make full use of its licensing powers to prevent repeat offender venues from operating.

@FairFringe