Campaigners call for major Fringe employer to be barred following damning report

The Unite trade union will be pursuing legal action against C Venues, which has been accused of relying on “exploitation, underpayment and overworked staff”

  • Accusations against C Venues includes underpayment of employees, the flouting of fair volunteering practices and overcrowded and substandard accommodation for their workers
  • The stress inflicted upon C Venues employees had led physical and mental ill health, including hospitalisation and the contemplation of suicide, the report states
  • C Venues claimed “the report contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations from a very small number of people, and does not reflect the experience of most of our team members”

A MAJOR employer at the Edinburgh Fringe should be barred from the world’s largest arts festival unless they “completely overhaul” their business model, the Fair Fringe campaign has argued, following their publication of a report detailing alleged exploitation, underpayment and overwork among staff, which has led to both physical and mental ill health.

In August 2018, an anonymous source within C Venues confirmed to CommonSpace many of the accusations made against the Fringe employer C Venues by the Fair Fringe campaign, which aims to end what it regards as the widespread exploitation of workers during the Edinburgh festival season.

Now, in a report published this week by the Fair Fringe campaign – which cites CommonSpace’s previous reporting on C Venues – further details have emerged of working conditions within C Venues, which includes underpayment of employees, the flouting of fair volunteering practices backed by the Scottish Trade Union Congress, overcrowded and substandard accommodation for C Venues workers, routine overwork and understaffing.

The report states that one C Venues manager told them that, while working for C Venues in 2017, she ended up in hospital and “almost committed suicide” because she was so stressed and overworked.

“The Fringe Society now has a choice to make about what they want the festival to represent: if they don’t want an exploited worker to be behind every ticket sale and every pint sold, they need to start making serious changes.” Fair Fringe spokesperson Kirsty Haigh

In the aftermath of this, the report claims, “C Venues knew about this but did nothing to change their model or reduce hours for this year’s team. In fact, they even had a smaller number of staff running a bigger Fringe operation this year. This should never have been allowed to happen.”

Fair Fringe spokesperson Kirsty Haigh commented: “This is a damning insight into the horrendous conditions under which they operate. It’s crystal clear the business model relies heavily on the exploitation of its staff and no company that operates like this should be allowed to take part in the Fringe.

“The Fringe Society now has a choice to make about what they want the festival to represent: if they don’t want an exploited worker to be behind every ticket sale and every pint sold, they need to start making serious changes. Venues that don’t meet the Fair Fringe charter shouldn’t be allowed to advertise in the programme and C Venues should be the first to be pulled.”

“Our wish is that no one has a bad experience at C venues. We are taking steps to ensure that the operational issues experienced are not repeated.” Statement from C Venues

The Fair Fringe campaign is now calling on Edinburgh City Council to not give venues that do not meet the campaign’s Fair Fringe Charter a licence. Additionally, the campaign demands as an end to the promotion of C Venues by other organisations, which should no longer allow C Venues to operate in their buildings, a review of ‘volunteering’ practices across all sectors, and an exploration of alternatives to worker protection mechanisms, which Fair Fringe activists argue are unsuitable for short-term workers such as those employed during the Edinburgh festival season.

The report concludes that “society needs to fundamentally change its relationship towards work and value those who work in hospitality and the arts. The Council, the Government, and HMRC should have been investigating and gathering this evidence about C Venues instead of us. Until then we will continue working to investigate, expose and eradicate unfair practices at the Fringe.”

In response to the report’s publication, C Venues told CommonSpace: “We are a volunteer-focussed organisation, and we work closely with our team members, many of whom return from year to year. Our volunteers have the opportunity to gain invaluable experience in a wide range of fields, and to make connections and participate in an environment where there is always something to learn. We provide a programme of training and support for our volunteers, including health & safety, technical theatre and theatre operations training. We aim to keep our volunteer programme in line with best practice and we are seeking to follow the Volunteer Scotland and Volunteer Edinburgh standards.

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

“We offer our volunteer team accommodation, food, and a small contribution to expenses. The accommodation is in shared rooms in flats of a reasonable standard within walking distance of the venues. We provide access to complimentary tickets and discounts. We take care to manage rotas so that team members are given suitable breaks. We provide ongoing support to our alumni, including publicising networking and training and paid work opportunities, and support with bringing future theatrical work to the Fringe. We are committed to developing further support for our team.

“We are deeply saddened to hear that a few individual members of our team have had bad experiences during their time at C venues. However, the report contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations from a very small number of people, and does not reflect the experience of most of our team members.

“We ask all team members to tell us their experiences, good and bad. Only one of the team members named in the article from 2018 told us they were unhappy with their situation directly. By contrast, many of our volunteer team members tell us that they have gained experience, skills, and knowledge from their time with us at the Fringe, and many come back for more than one year.

“Our wish is that no one has a bad experience at C venues. We are taking steps to ensure that the operational issues experienced are not repeated, and to provide more channels for team members to communicate with us. If any member of the C venues team, past or present, would like to speak to us about any such issues we would be happy to meet them.”

"The report from Fair Fringe shows the systemic nature of mistreatment of workers at C Venues with some being paid £200 for a month's full-time work. Unite are quite clear that this represents a breach of the National Minimum Wage Act.” Unite industrial organiser Bryan Simpson

Responding to the statement from C Venues, Kirsty Haigh told CommonSpace: "It is deeply frustrating that C Venues' response to the shocking stories their staff have shared is to deny any wrongdoing. They should be taking this opportunity to reflect on what has gone wrong and apologise to staff.

“Our report and the stories from their staff - as well as a large number of staff who have reached out to us but asked for their stories not to be made public - demonstrates clearly the serious problems with C Venues' business model. Since we launched the report, we've also had more C Venues staff come forward with similar stories about their time at C Venues, and how grateful they are that this report has been released.

READ MORE: Fair Fringe campaign names the worst Edinburgh festival venues in ‘Bad Boss Awards’

“C Venues' profoundly inadequate response only demonstrates their complete unwillingness to address the issues, and underlines the need for them to be barred from the Fringe. We repeat our calls to the Fringe Society and Edinburgh City Council to take action."

Bryan Simpson, industrial organiser with the Unite trade union and the Better than Zero campaign, told CommonSpace: "The report from Fair Fringe shows the systemic nature of mistreatment of workers at C Venues with some being paid £200 for a month's full-time work. Unite are quite clear that this represents a breach of the National Minimum Wage Act and we are supporting our members in a collective legal case against the company for unlawful deduction of wages."

Simpson also confirmed to CommonSpace that Thompsons Solicitors are supporting Unite members at C Venues in their collective case for failure to pay minimum wage, in the hope that this sets a precedent and ensures profit-making companies are not able to use volunteers for cheap or free labour.

Picture courtesy of byronv2

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