There might be plenty of laughs each year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival but for the hundreds of people behind the scenes who make the Festival possible – the bartenders, stagehands, venue attendants, flyerers, box office staff, sound engineers, cleaners, security guards and others – their treatment at work is no laughing matter.
Bryan Simpson of Unite Hospitality has spoken to Fringe workers who report all manner of abuse, from underpayment of the minimum wage by misclassifying workers as “volunteers”, to sexual harassment to excessively long – and illegal – shifts.
“Last year we received reports of widespread use of exploitative practices by Fringe employers including being paid £10 per 1000 leaflets, working 10 hours without a break and not being paid for work carried out,” he explained.
One anonymous Fringe worker told of how he, like many young people, was lured to work for Fringe companies by perks such as free tickets – perks which the worker said he “could not use” because he was working constantly.
“I quit after two weeks due to exhaustion, lost my work-provided accommodation and was homeless in Edinburgh until my flight,” the worker said.
Some reported less than five hours between shifts, while others said accommodation had pest control problems and housed ten people in flats meant for four or five.
In response to these practices, Unite has teamed up with other campaign groups to form the Fair Fringe campaign.
“We are determined not to allow this to happen again,” Simpson added. “The Fair Fringe campaign seeks to improve the wages and conditions of Fringe staff alongside the workers themselves.”
On the eve of the 70th year of the Fringe, the campaign set up a whistleblowing website where Fringe workers can share their stories of exploitation.
“Unite will be offering advice and support to any workers being exploited to ensure that they get what they are entitled to,” Simpson added.
The Fair Fringe campaign is using a petition to urge employers to sign up to Unite’s Fair Hospitality Charter. The Charter has nine demands, including payment of the real living wage; rest breaks; equal pay for young workers; minimum hour contracts; anti-sexual harassment policies; paid transport after 12pm; worker consultation on rota changes; 100 per cent tips going to staff; and trade union access.
The Fair Fringe campaign is also calling on MSPs to support a motion that has been lodged in the Scottish Parliament to put additional pressure on Fringe employers to adopt Unite’s charter.
“Fringe workers, just like everyone else, deserve to have their rights in the workplace respected,” said Kirsty Haigh of the Fair Fringe campaign. “They deserve to earn a wage they can live off and young workers deserve equal pay for equal work. We need to change the culture of acceptance in the Fringe where exploitation and exhaustion are seen as standard. We need a Fringe that works for everyone.”
To help support the Fair Fringe campaign, sign the petition here. The campaign is also asking Edinburgh-based politicians, campaign groups, and artists and performers at the Fringe to sign an open letter to Fringe employers here.
Keep up to date on the campaign on the Fair Fringe Facebook page.