Pressure grows on Edinburgh City Council to take action against Fringe employer accused of exploitation

“The Fringe cannot be allowed to be a place where exploitation thrives,” Scottish Green councillor Alex Staniforth says

  • The Fair Fringe campaign has called on the Council to deny licences to venues at the Edinburgh Fringe which do not abide by the Fair Fringe charter
  • The demand was made in a report published this week, detailing allegations of employee and volunteer exploitation and poor working conditions at the major Fringe employer C Venues
  • The City of Edinburgh Council has responded by urging venues and promoters to abide by the ‘Festival Workers’ Welfare Commitment’
  • However, this code of practice has previously been criticised by the Fair Fringe campaign, claiming it does little to ensure improved pay and conditions

DEMANDS from the Fair Fringe campaign - which aims to end exploitative working conditions of employees and volunteers during the Edinburgh festival season – for the City of Edinburgh Council to deny licences to venues which do not abide by its Fair Fringe charter have been backed by a local Green councillor, despite the local authorities claim that it would be “very difficult” to deny a licence on the grounds of employee complaint.

This follows the release earlier this week of a report by the Fair Fringe campaign detailing numerous accusations of worker exploitation and poor working conditions at the major Fringe employer C Venues, as well as the announcement from the Unite trade union that it would be pursuing legal action against C Venues over its failure to pay the minimum wage.

Speaking on behalf of the Fair Fringe campaign, Mike Williamson told CommonSpace: "Edinburgh Council passed a motion in support of the Fair Fringe campaign last year, but actions speak louder than words.

“If the Council is serious about making the Festival benefit ordinary people in Edinburgh, it should deny licenses to employers who breach the Fair Fringe Charter. As it stands, dodgy employers make a killing at the expense of exploited workers."

The motion in question, passed in August 2017, states that the council “welcomes the work of the Fair Fringe campaign to promote fair working conditions for fringe workers.

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

The motion reads: “This Council calls for a report ahead of plans for next year’s summer Festivals and Fringe on how the 10 aims of the Fair Hospitality Charter can best be promoted and adhered to by employers hiring Council owned Festival and Fringe venues for the purposes for running Fringe events and hosting food and beverage venues.

“The report should examine which conditions could be attached to Council grant funding to further these aims. Pay workers the real living wage; Give workers rest breaks; Equal pay for young workers; Minimum hour contracts for workers; Adopt clear policies which prevent sexual harassment; Paid transport after 12am; Consult workers on rota changes; Ensure 100% of tips are paid to workers; Allow Trade Union access to represent and organise staff.”

Cllr Alex Staniforth, culture and communities spokesperson for the Scottish Greens group on Edinburgh City Council, who has previously voiced the party’s support for upholding the Fair Fringe charter and the rights of Fringe workers and performers, told CommonSpace: “Edinburgh City Council should do everything it can to support the Fair Fringe Charter - the Fringe cannot be allowed to be a place where exploitation thrives.

“Therefore, the council should do everything in its power to ensure venues abide by the Charter and abiding by the Charter should be a condition of licensing for Fringe venues.”

“The council should do everything in its power to ensure venues abide by the Charter and abiding by the Charter should be a condition of licensing for Fringe venues.” Edinburgh cllr Alex Staniforth

Another local Green councillor, Susan Rae, also told CommonSpace: “We have a Fair Fringe Charter for a reason, and that’s because we want people to abide by that charter.”

A spokesperson for the City of Edinburgh Council told CommonSpace: “Edinburgh is the World’s leading Festival City and employers have a responsibility to promote and follow best practice. And it is encouraging that in the vast majority of cases, they do. For instance, last summer, the Fringe found that 90 per cent of those involved would choose to work at the Festival again and that 83 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied with their overall experience.

“And as a Council, we urge venues and promoters to follow the ‘Festivals Workers’ Welfare Commitment’, which sets out what we as a city expect for Festival workers. The Commitment promotes certainty for staff around work breaks, contracted hours, tips and trial shifts. It reminds employers of their legal responsibility to prevent harassment and discrimination and see their staff get safely to and from work. We’ll continue to call upon those engaging our Festival workers in Edinburgh to follow these commitments, to help ensure everyone has a fair, fun, Edinburgh Festival experience.”

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

However, the Festivals Workers’ Welfare Commitment – a purely voluntary code of practice – was criticised following its announcement by Fair Fringe spokesperson Kirsty Haigh, who told CommonSpace in June last year: “Creating a voluntary scheme does little to ensure that venues will actually change their practices.”

The City of Edinburgh Council have also argued that, under the powers available to Scottish local authorities and under the legislation councils operate under, it would be “very difficult” for an authority to make a case against a licence request on the grounds of employment complaint by an employee against their employer, particularly without evidence, and this is currently beyond the scope of licensing law.

Responding to Edinburgh City Council’s statement, Fair Fringe activist Mike Williamson told CommonSpace: "Edinburgh Council's commitment means nothing unless it is followed up with action. Currently the commitments aren't even incentivised, never mind enforced in any way. Whilst the Council publishes mere aspirations, workers in the summer festivals continue to be treated poorly. 

“It's crystal clear that C Venues don't meet any of the most basic requirements of being a good employer. Our work, including our recent report on C Venues, has uncovered practices including bogus volunteerism, inadequate days off, terrible accommodation, and a disregard for staff welfare. If the Council wants to stamp out this practice, and make sure the festival is fair for everyone, it should start thinking about what it can do instead of telling us what it can't. 

“Until the council starts taking those steps it can take, its excuses will ring hollow in the ears of suffering festival workers."

Picture courtesy of Ade Oshineye

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