Legal threat over Edinburgh's Hogmany volunteers row

Union leaders claim Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations are at risk of breaking the law by using around 300 unpaid workers for the first time.

The opening event of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations starts with the annual Torchlight Procession, as thousands of torch carriers led by Shetland's Up Helly Aa' Vikings. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Unite officials leading a campaign against the exploitation of entertainment industry workers say the event will be flouting the National Minimum Wage Act if the teams of “Hogmanay Ambassadors” are not paid.

They say they have been told by Unique Events, the firm which lost the contract to run the event to rival outfit Underbelly, that all the volunteer roles were paid previously.

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The Better Than Zero campaign, which has already persuaded Scotland’s leading volunteering charity to withdraw its backing from the Hogmanay initiative, has now threatened to raise a number of tribunal cases over “unlawful deduction of wages”. Better Than Zero claims the Hogmanay Ambassadors are not “legitimate” volunteering roles because Underbelly is a commercial company. It has accused Underbelly and the council of flouting firm industry guideliness by using volunteers to “displace paid work”.

Underbelly has described suggestions that it is replacing paid employeement with unpaid workers as “completely unfounded”, even though the budget for this year’s event has been cut by around £500,000 by the city council.

The firm is still looking to hire managers, supervisors and ambassadors for the main Hogmanay festival events. However a legal dossier by Better Then Zero setting out the legal arguments, states: “The National Minimum Wage Act is quite clear that only those employed by a ‘charity, voluntary organisation, an associated fundraising body or a statutory body are exempt from paying the minimum wage’. Given the status of Underbelly as a limited company it does not fulfil any of the above definitions.”

A spokesman for Better Than Zero said: “We remain absolutely clear that the use of 300 unpaid volunteers at Hogmanay is morally unnacceptable and may also be in breach of the National Minimum Wage Act which obligates profit making companies like Underbelly to pay at least the minimum wage.

“In 2016 the same roles weren’t just paid but were paid overtime. Underbelly cannot justify replacing previously paid roles with unpaid ones, particularly when they are forcing them to commit to nine and a half hours of mandatory training.”

A spokeswoman for Underbelly said: “We absolutely refute the claims that our volunteer programme replaces any paid for roles and stand by our ambassador programme and its mutual benefits.”