By Mike Small
The sound of the world’s tiniest violins was heard across the capital yesterday as Shona McCarthy, the head of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe warned that a campaign targeting poor treatment of workers in venues is threatening the event’s future.
A spokesperson for Better than Zero told Bella:”In entertainment and services it’s not unusual to work gruelling hours in grim conditions without fair pay. The experiences that Shona McCarthy wants to dismiss as ‘hyperbole’ are increasingly normal, and the rising frustration of workers is reflected in the numbers demanding more rights and respect.”If businesses making a profit from unpaid work are feeling under threat, it simply means that Fair Fringe, Better than Zero and other union campaigns are building the strength to win what workers are due.”All of which is true, but it also brings into question the why its the appropriate role of Shona McCarthy to attack trade unionists.
The festival has faced accusation of exploitative practices for years. Damning allegations include health and safety violations, illegal working hours and pay disputes.
In 2017 Vice reported one worker complaining: “Because we signed a volunteer contract, they could simply pay us £200 for the five to six week period and no one could complain about that working out to maybe 60p an hour,” while others told stories of “being put up in flats with major pest control problems, several people to a room” or “continuously told off for having drinks or sitting down, despite it being over the legal temperature limit indoors”.
In January of this year the Fair Fringe campaign singled out C Venues, one of the biggest producers, accusing it of imposing poor conditions on workers and paying them as little as £200 for the entire Fringe run, and demanding the Fringe Society ban C Venues over “an unacceptable model built on exploitation, underpayment and overworked staff”.
The result is a super-bland cultural experience that erodes the local economy – but the idea that this not big business, that the Edinburgh operation is not a huge commercial event lacks credibility.
Of course it’s true that the festival has venues and producers of all different sizes, but it is, no doubt, a cash cow.
The Fair Fringe was founded by young socialists, in coalition with the union Unite and Better Than Zero, a campaign which organises against zero hours contracts. It consists of a petition and open letter, and calls for the Fringe’s “big 4” venues – Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly and the Gilded Balloon – to sign up to a “Fair Hospitality Charter“, which lays out demands around pay, breaks, trade union access, sexual harassment, tips and more.
The Fair Fringe Charter asks for:
- Staff to be paid the real living wage of £8.75 an hour
- Rest breaks
- Equal pay for young staff
- An end to unpaid trial shifts
- An anti-sexual harassment policy
- A minimum hour contract
- Paid transport after midnight
- Consultation on rota changes
- A transparent TRONC system for tips
- Union recognition