Exclusive: Underpaid, overworked and kept ignorant of their rights: the exploitation of Edinburgh Fringe workers – and the fight against it

As the Fair Fringe campaign releases a damning report on the working conditions of Edinburgh festival employees, a source within a major Fringe venue reveals to CommonSpace that management are instructed not to reveal their workers are underpaid

PRESSURE IS MOUNTING on the companies behind the biggest venues of the Edinburgh Fringe to reform the “shameful” working conditions of their workers, following the release of a report by the trade union-backed Fair Fringe campaign.

The report, which states that many highly prevalent practices are “unfair and unsafe” and lead to “physical and mental decline” for the workers who suffer under them, has been released ahead of a renewed push by the Fair Fringe campaign to educate festival workers about their rights as the Fringe continues in Scotland’s capital throughout August.

An anonymous source has also told CommonSpace that managers at one prominent Fringe venue have been reprimanded for preventing the overworking of their workers, and have been instructed not to reveal the poor pay such workers receive.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Fair Fringe campaigner Gordon Maloney commented: "This report shows the extent to which Fringe employers see themselves as untouchable. Not only do they treat the people who work for them appallingly, but they don't even pretend otherwise.

"This report shows the extent to which Fringe employers see themselves as untouchable. Not only do they treat the people who work for them appallingly, but they don't even pretend otherwise.” Fair Fringe campaigner Gordon Maloney

“It has to change. Fringe employers need to step up their act and the council needs to use the powers it has to ensure they do." 

The report highlights that workers are entitled to a limit of 48 hours on the working week and at least one guaranteed day off per week; however, a survey of Fringe workers commissioned by the Fringe Society last year showed that almost half – 48 per cent – said they worked more than 48 hours per week, while 31 per cent said their average shifts lasted ten or more hours.

The report cites several Fringe job advertisements which require work schedules that arguably contravene the Working Times Regulations 1998 Act, and which place applicants in the position of having to waive their rights in order to be employed. Festival employers, the report argues, have created “a situation where excessive work becomes normalised.”

On pay, the report again cites the Fringe Society’s findings; more than half of respondents to last year’s survey said that they received an hourly wage of less than the then-minimum wage of £7.50. Given that Edinburgh is typically an expensive city to live in, and becomes even more so during the festival season, this means that many Fringe workers are not being paid enough to live off for the duration.

Also widespread are ‘volunteer’ positions, which account for 30 per cent of Fringe workers. These volunteers are not paid an hourly wage, but are instead provided with free accommodation and some spending money.

The report reveals that C venues offers a mere £200 for volunteers who work over the entire course of the Fringe, working out to less than 50p per hour. “This equates to the wages of the sweatshop,” says the report.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Fair Fringe Campaign: New code of practice “does little” to ensure improved pay & conditions

The free accommodation offered by these roles also ties workers to their positions by threatening them with homelessness should they decide to leave. The conditions of the accommodation are often similarly dissatisfactory, with many workers crowded in a single room. The cost of this accommodation will sometimes be deducted from those who do receive salaries, a practice which affects a further 30 per cent of Fringe workers.

The report’s concluding recommendations argue that all Fringe venues and performers should sign up to the Unite trade union’s Fair Hospitality Charter, which would commit them to the real Living Wage of £8.75 per hour, rest breaks, equal pay for young workers, minimum hour contracts, anti-sexual harassment policies, paid transportation after midnight, 100 per cent tips for staff, an end to unpaid trial shifts and access to trade union membership.

Fair Fringe campaign organiser Kirsty Haigh told CommonSpace: “Last year we started this campaign because we know the Fringe thrives off the exploitation of its workforce and, while we’ve achieved a lot, this year is no different. We’re less than a week in and already we’ve had too many horrifying stories from staff about the utterly unacceptable treatment they have received. Most Fringe staff are yet to have a day off having worked long shifts for two weeks. Lots of them won’t receive a single day off in the whole 4-6 weeks they work and some of them will only be paid £200 for this whole time.”

“Too many employers treat it as if they are doing staff a favour by giving them a job in the Fringe. They fail to understand that it is a job like any other and people need to earn a living. If they cannot function with suitable working conditions then they simply cannot function. Staff cannot be worked until they break. Employers go on about the Fringe experience people will have but do everything to ensure their staff are too exhausted and too broke to enjoy it.”

“We’re here to show the realities of the Fringe, support the workers and force Fringe employers to change. A Fringe built off illegal employment practices, and a race to the bottom of workers rights is nothing to be proud of.”

“Too many employers treat it as if they are doing staff a favour by giving them a job in the Fringe. They fail to understand that it is a job like any other and people need to earn a living.” Fair Fringe campaign organiser Kirsty Haigh

Bryan Simpson, a hospitality organiser for the Unite Scotland union who has also been involved in the Fair Fringe campaign, also told CommonSpace: “We are redoubling our efforts to put pressure on the Big Four [the four biggest Fringe employers – the Underbelly, the Assembly, the Gilded Balloon and the Pleasance]. We’ve just had an agreement from Summerhall, which was number five on the list; they have about two hundred and sixty staff. They’ve not only signed up to the Fair Fringe charter, but they’ve also recognised Unite as the sole trade union, which is good.

“Basically, we’re starting from Summerhall and moving our way up. Obviously, we’ll also be looking to put pressure on smaller venues and employers to adopt the Living Wage, get rid of zero hours contracts, giving people adequate notice for rota changes – not particularly radical demands.”

“We’ve had a big success with Summerhall, because that really helps us to create a wedge within the festival sector. One of the positive things to come out of that we’re going to be using Summerhall as a kind of central base for our employment rights drop-ins – there’s going to be about two or three a week throughout August, and they’re going to be hosted at Summerhall.”

These events, titled ‘Know Your Rights and How to Enforce Them’, will involve “fully trained reps from Unite and other unions advising and supporting workers who feel like they are taken for a ride – any questions about contracts, wages, breaks, we’re going to be giving out education packs so people know what their rights are as zero hours workers. A lot of people think, when they’re on a zero hours contract, they’re not entitled to anything.”

Simpson also revealed that the Pleasance have committed £50,000 of extra investment to what Simpson describes as “policies and practices that will positively improve working conditions.”

“However,” Simpson acknowledges, “it’s not enough. We are looking to re-open talks with them [the Pleasance] to sign up to the Fair Fringe charter.”

“We’ll also be looking to put pressure on smaller venues and employers to adopt the Living Wage, get rid of zero hours contracts, giving people adequate notice for rota changes – not particularly radical demands.” Unite Scotland hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson

Another target for the Fair Fringe campaign is C venues, which Simpson described as “quite notorious”. Many of the details in the Fair Fringe report were confirmed to by a source currently working within C venues, who spoke to CommonSpace on the condition of anonymity.

While the report states that C venues volunteers are provided with £200 if they work for the entire Fringe, the source claims: “In actual fact, last year it was £117.”

Asked what the feelings of volunteers and staff at C venues were towards their conditions, the source said: “A lot of them are very upset, very frustrated, but unfortunately they feel there’s nothing they can do. They’re told, because they’re given free accommodation, it makes up for the costs, and the experience itself makes up the cost.

“But frankly, I don’t think so, because they’re not given food. Edinburgh is incredibly expensive when it comes to food, and when you’re expected to work extremely long hours, you don’t really have time to cook for yourself, so a lot of them come out in a lot of debt.”

Describing the living conditions within the accommodation provided by C venues, the source stated: “Essentially, the way it works is if you’re a manager, you get your own room; also, if you’re a manager, you do get more than £200. However, if you are a normal, entry-level, box office [or] tech, you’ll usually have a roomed shared between two, three, maybe four people, with mattresses on the floor.”

Asked if there had been any discussion within the organisation over whether C venues should pay its workers the minimum or Living Wage, the source responded: “No. They have clearly stated that if they do that, then it will not be able to run as a company - so they’re not willing to do that.

“In fact, they criticised one of the employees who tried to share the Fair Fringe with other employees. They had their message blocked and deleted, and was told: ‘Do not do that – it will be the death of the company.”

“We are given strict instructions not to let anyone know - including the performers in our venue - that we are not being paid properly.” Anonymous source working within C venues

The source said that interactions between C venues employees and the Fair Fringe campaign had been limited: “Unfortunately, a lot of them are too scared, because it means they’ll get a bad reputation. They are treated very badly if they were to do anything like that – [they are] almost seen as a traitor. It’s a very tough environment, which is why I’ve had to remain anonymous.”

While the details revealed by the source largely pertained to C venues, they nevertheless stated that they reflected widespread practices throughout the Fringe: “I think there’s a big attitude that says: ‘If you don’t like it, go home. We can get someone else. You’re dispensible.’ The arts industry is so competitive, so hard to get into, a lot of people trying to get in will just take what they can get.

“[For] people of my level – because I’m a manager and I’ve got experience – it doesn’t affect me too much, and I came back here because I wanted to protect the entry-levels.

“The people who I think are at the most risk are the ones who are coming during university – they’ve never had experience of what decent working conditions are like. They’re trusting the management to be doing the right thing, and they don’t understand that actually they’re forcing them to work beyond liveable working conditions.”

Even if management are sympathetic to C venues workers, the source went on, they have little ability to do anything about it: “There are plenty of managers who have up and left because they’ve got very frustrated. The director of the company does not allow any freedom for the managers to run their teams in a safe way. I have been told off for sending my team members at a reasonable hour. I have been told off for telling my team members not to overwork themselves. And it’s the same for every manager. We do not get any freedom to look after our employees.”

Furthermore, the source reports that efforts are taken within the company to keep the details of working conditions out of the public eye: “We are given strict instructions not to let anyone know - including the performers in our venue - that we are not being paid properly.”

Explaining why they had come forward, the source said: “Anything I can do to make sure this stops - because I’ve had enough.”

“The Edinburgh Festival brings in £280m pounds to this city over the month of August. 4.5m tickets are up for sale – the world’s greatest arts festival. And hanging over it like a backstage cloth is that it’s built on cheap labour.” Scottish Socialist Party national co-spokesperson Colin Fox

C venues did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

In addition to the Fair Fringe campaign’s efforts, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) will be hosting a ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ event outside of the Scottish Parliament on the 25th of August at 1pm, which aims to protest the unliveable conditions of many Fringe workers.

Commenting to CommonSpace, SSP national co-spokesperson Colin Fox said: “The Edinburgh Festival brings in £280m pounds to this city over the month of August. 4.5m tickets are up for sale – the world’s greatest arts festival. And hanging over it like a backstage cloth is that it’s built on cheap labour.

“There are thousands of people here, employed by companies in the Edinburgh Festival, who are working for peanuts, and who need to be on the Living Wage, because the reputation of it will be sullied worldwide if the people who come here realise the circumstances and working conditions that many of the staff are working under.”

UPDATE: The original version of this article contained a reference by Bryan Simpson to the number of interactions between the Fair Fringe campaign and Underbelly, which Simpson has since retracted. For more details, see CommonSpace’s latest report.

Picture courtesy of Mary Hutchison

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