Every August, Scotland’s capital becomes home to thousands of performers, artists, production crews and arts lovers as the world’s biggest arts festival takes over. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival brings £90 million into the Scottish economy – a figure which rises to more than £300 million when the full range of August festivals, including those covering books, film and jazz, are also included.
But behind every £6 drink is an army of staff holding everything together, often seeing too little a return on their hard work. Frequently that army is made up of students looking for summer work, or those trying to break into the arts – a raft of workers across bars, hospitality, flyering, tech and more prop up the festival throughout August, often for little or no pay, and under exploitative or even illegal conditions.
Miriam* has worked at the Edinburgh Fringe the past three years it’s been on. “This year I’m working in a more managerial role, and it’s a nightmare,” she told me. “I received no training or contract, and in the lead-up to August the goalposts of what my role would actually involve kept changing. I was expected to do three days of unpaid work before the Fringe started.”
She describes long hours of being constantly on call, managing a team of ten people and eight acts for a lump sum which works out at £4.30 an hour, and funding events from her own money which keep her at work until 4AM, before an 11AM start the following day. “Of course, I knew all this before taking the job. I hate the working conditions but I’m aware there’s literally no other way I could get work experience like this,” she said. “This kind of thing looks good on my CV, which is the only reason I took the job.”
Mike Williamson, co-founder of the Fair Fringe campaign – which launched this year to improve the wages and conditions for workers at the Fringe – gives me another example: “We heard of a case last year where someone was paid an hourly shift rate but had their work split up between shows – so in reality they were working 40 minutes in every hour and being allocated 20 minute breaks, meaning they were doing, for example, a 12-hour shift, but only being paid for eight.”
Talking to workers across the Fringe, I hear of an environment in which people “work their way up”, putting up with exploitative conditions and exhaustion on the basis that they will be placed in a more senior role next year. The conditions are such that workers can be easily dismissed at any hint of a complaint; every worker who was interviewed for this article wanted to remain anonymous.
A working environment in which workers are easily exploited can enable some troubling behaviour. According to Miriam, “In my first year flyering, the main problem was that the street team manager was very touchy, often coming up behind us to rub our lower backs, which was creepy. We were uncomfortable, but there was nobody to report this to. The owners of the company were good friends with him and were barely ever present.”
It may be for these reasons that previous initiatives to tackle working conditions at the Fringe have largely failed to make much of an impact. In 2015, the media and entertainment union BECTU worked with the Edinburgh Fringe Society to produce a code of conduct for venues, but few know it exists.
A whistleblower website set up last year revealed some damning practices, including health and safety violations, illegal working hours and pay disputes, despite only receiving a handful of entries. “Because we signed a volunteer contract, they could simply pay us £200 for the five to six week period and no one could complain about that working out to maybe 60p an hour,” reads one, while others tell stories of “being put up in flats with major pest control problems, several people to a room” or “continuously told off for having drinks or sitting down, despite it being over the legal temperature limit indoors”.
“Every year there are conversations about trying to do something,” said Williamson. “But Fringe-workers are here for one month a year and they don’t know each other before they arrive. The networks needed to organise workers don’t exist because relationships don’t get any time to bond”.
Fair Fringe was founded by Scottish Labour Young Socialists, in coalition with Unite the union and Better Than Zero, a campaign which organises against zero hours contracts. It consists of a petition and open letter, and calls for the Fringe’s “big 4” venues – Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly and the Gilded Balloon – to sign up to a “Fair Hospitality Charter“, which lays out demands around pay, breaks, trade union access, sexual harassment, tips and more.
I approached each of these venues for comment. Assembly, Underbelly and Pleasance all responded – the first two respectively saying they meet “National Minimum Wage regulations” and pay staff “in accordance with government regulations” – but none would be drawn on the specifics of the Fair Fringe campaign and its demands. The Gilded Balloon did not respond.
At the time of writing, the petition has nearly 300 signatures, and Green MSP Ross Greer has lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament in support of the campaign.
Appropriately enough, the MP for Edinburgh East, where most Fringe venues are to be found, had a previous career in comedy. The SNP’s Tommy Sheppard co-founded The Stand comedy clubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle. “The debate at the Fringe is that there are a number of venues operating commercially, but who blur the lines between volunteering and employment,” said Sheppard. “But it makes good business sense to treat staff fairly. If you pay people what they’re worth and a fair price, then they’re more likely to invest their energy and attitude into the company.”
He currently has a number of constituents in his caseload who have raised issues of Fringe working conditions; one, he says, was recruited to a venue assistant role pitched as a development opportunity for those forging a career in the arts. Upon arriving, she was allocated building work with no health and safety training, and was paid a lump sum which worked out at less than £3 an hour.
The Fringe is a huge and complex institution, and many workers I spoke to were also quick to point out that its programme includes a number of venues which are Living Wage accredited and where workers enjoy excellent conditions. “A lot of companies and flyerers are there for a month of comedy and fun, and are very much up for taking on board the spirit of the Fringe,” one told me.
But as she points out, the same can’t be said across the Fringe. “Sadly, some venues are there solely for business and making money. That’s where it all begins to go wrong.”
*names have been changed at the request of interviewees