Playing Fair: Workers at the Edinburgh Fringe

In the run-up to the Edinburgh Festivals, we're launching a new series asking how we can make 2019 the fairest Fringe of them all. First stop: the employees

Feature by Eliza Gearty | 31 May 2019
  • Fair Fringe

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is legendary for launching the careers of some of our most beloved performers, writers and creatives, showcasing exceptional international work and drawing audiences in their millions from across the globe. 

What tend to get less attention are the people who arguably make it all happen – the bar staff, box office sellers and dozens of other workers who do the less glamorous tasks that make the Fringe the well-oiled machine that it is. 

The Fair Fringe campaign is helping to finally put these people centre-stage. Launched in 2017, it's comprised of Fringe workers, Edinburgh residents, community activists and trade union campaigners who are fighting to end exploitation at the Fringe. 

"We knew we needed to take action against a problematic system of Fringe exploitation, in terms of workers not getting the minimum wage, and sometimes not even getting contracts at all," says Bryan Simpson, an organiser with Unite The Union's Fair Hospitality campaign – whose members play a central role in the Fair Fringe campaign. 

One of the first actions of the campaign was conduct a survey alongside the Fringe Society –  the biggest survey of Fringe workers ever carried out. The results were worrying but, Simpson says, not surprising. "The survey confirmed that there was a massive underpayment of workers," says Simpson. "49% of workers were earning less than £7.50 an hour – the minimum wage at the time. That was either because [these companies] were only hiring young workers [current legislation allows for workers under 25 to be paid up to 40% less than those over 25] – or they were breaking the law." 

So how are the Fair Fringe tackling this? Simpson says the first step was talking to workers about their rights. 

"We originally set out to raise consciousness about the treatment of workers at the Fringe and to inform workers of their rights. We did this by hosting collective learning events aimed at educating workers about their rights at work and how to enforce them. We wanted to raise the confidence of workers as a collective unit to take direct action against the worst employers, and to put pressure on the council," explains Simpson.

"Following months of lobbying, Edinburgh City Council voted unanimously to support the Fair Fringe Charter – a series of reforms and changes designed to make the Fringe a decent environment to work in. They've also adopted their own version, The Edinburgh Festivals Workers' Welfare Commitment, which ensures workers are paid at least the local government public sector living wage, a ban on zero hour contracts and unpaid trial shifts, 100% of tips and better protection from discrimination and sexual harassment  policies." 

In Simpson's mind, this was one of the campaign's biggest wins. "[The council] have now made it part of their leasing agreement that, if someone wants to use one of their publicly owned venues, they've got to pay the local government living wage," he says. "In my view, that was the most significant change – it will help improve the conditions and wages of thousands of workers, not just at the Fringe, but any time these venues are used." 

However, there is still work to be done. This year, the Fair Fringe will continue their campaign against C Venues, one of the Fringe's biggest employers, and a for-profit company who they claim have continued to use unpaid volunteers. They've been accused of paying workers £200 for the whole festival, and of imposing bad working conditions. The campaign have persuaded three of the company's lease-holders to cut ties, and this summer will see them turn their attention to the other two. 

Simpson claims the campaign isn't just about putting pressure on the worst employers – its also about working positively with venues who are keen to improve standards for the better. "The Stand Comedy Club have agreed to pay transport home for all staff after 11.30pm – they're also just about to sign up to the Fair Hospitality charter," he reveals. "We're also in discussion with New Town Theatre –  one of the biggest Fringe venues – and that's going to be our central focus during the Fringe, in terms of hosting Fair Fringe drop ins." 

The Fair Fringe campaign is also invested in addressing the murkier aspects of worker exploitation. Sexual harassment, for example, is already a contentious issue within the hospitality industry, and something that is amplified during the Fringe. 

"Sexual harassment exists in every workplace," says Simpson. "But with [hospitality] you've got a toxic combination – a patriarchal culture of tips, where customers think that for the two hours they're being served the worker is their servant; and the insecurity of a zero-hour contract."

Workers know they could have their hours cut instantly if they become 'difficult' or 'cause problems' – leading to a reluctance to report incidents of sexual harassment. It's all too easy for managers to take advantage of this and turn a blind eye to the sexual harassment occurring in their workplaces. 

"During the Fringe, this is even more magnified." says Simpson. "You've got hospitality workers, you've got performers, you've got box office workers – all are vulnerable to sexual harassment, in a concentrated period of five weeks of mayhem, which exacerbates the patriarchal system of employment. There's very little duty of care put in place for workers at the Fringe. Hospitality is bad enough – put that under the magnifying glass of the Fringe for five weeks, and you've got the potential for a toxic environment, rife with sexual harassment." 

Paying for taxis for staff home after 11.30pm, as undertaken by The Stand, is an excellent step towards reducing these incidents, as is holding venues accountable for enforcing clear policies that prevent sexual harassment. It is vital that workers are aware of their right to speak up too, which is why the 'Know Your Rights' sessions are so important. 

In the aftermath of #MeToo, productions that address sexual harassment have been popular. Last year's festival saw the staging of 29 shows with a #MeToo theme, and this year's programme includes the debut one-woman show of the campaign's key instigator, Rose McGowan. 

Bringing these stories to light at the festival is a positive step – and provides all the more incentive for companies to step up when it comes to their own sexual harassment policies.

"Whether they intend it or not, arts organisations will never be able to achieve equal representation if they don’t start with employment conditions and wages," says Simpson. 

The Fringe cannot keep relying on "unpaid internships, trial shifts and volunteers" if it wants to be truly inclusive, Simpson suggests. "The arts are very important to working-class lives," he says. But too many "working class people are told that it is they [who] must sacrifice a decent wage and conditions in order to get that elusive role, which invariably goes to the person with connections."

Giving working-class stories a platform is commendable, he adds. But to really see a sustainable shift in representation, we must change "the long term structures" so that working-class voices can "progress organically through arts organisations" and rise to the top.