Against a backdrop of a looming Brexit and the undoubted economic uncertainty in its shadow, the last thing the Fringe needs this summer is intense scrutiny of the financial models behind a host of its biggest players.
But that is what is likely to play out thanks to the arrival on the scene of activists who care not a jot for the reputation of the Fringe or any of those involved in the running of major venues.
Over the last 12 months, C Venues, one of the best-known and largest operators, has been under the most fire from the campaign group for its apparent over-reliance on volunteers. It lost two of its major venues earlier this year after being branded the worst employer at the Fringe.
Fair Fringe’s latest report, published less than a week before the first previews of shows, has shone a spotlight right across the Fringe. While it claims operators have become much more secretive about pay and conditions in the wake of its campaigning, it has ploughed through recruitment adverts to try to identify the worst villains for a new exposé of the “terrible” and “shameful” working conditions they say are likely to be endured by workers.
According to the report, the event is still dogged by problems with “poverty pay” rates, the use of volunteer labour to keep operating costs down, companies discriminating on the grounds of age, and an embedded culture of “expectation to work to the point of exhaustion”.
The Fringe Society has cautioned against unfairly maligning companies for long-standing operating models and insisted that volunteers have a key part to play in the festival.
To anyone unfamiliar with its complex eco-system, and the numerous financial models behind venues, the new Fair Fringe research may have made for eye-watering reading. Some of those are likely to be those politicians who appear to be taking a growing interest in the campaign if their social media interventions are anything to go by. It certainly begs a number of important questions for the Fringe and public funders with a stake in the event to address.
How can it be that people playing a crucial part in the running of venues can receive as little as £9 a day for a 10-hour shift given that the Fringe is worth more than £200 million to the city’s economy and the event has an audience of nearly three million? Why should some of the most profitable venues be paying less than the real living wage of £9 an hour? Is it right that Fringe workers should expect no more than a day off over the course of the month? Why should Fringe staff be discriminated against on the basis of their age or what they look like?
Some big players are less than amused at effectively being named and shamed by the Fair Fringe campaign, along with other venues and promoters, for poor rates of pay and the use of large teams of volunteers.
It may be that they have failed to adequately communicate exactly how they treat their staff (both paid and unpaid) but, as far as the Fair Fringe campaign is concerned, what they are doing, or not doing, is no longer good enough.
If anything, its activists now seem emboldened. With debate raging on exactly who is benefiting the most from the Fringe, that could mean an uncomfortable few weeks for some of its operators, no matter how much of a challenge it is to balance their books.