Brian Ferguson: First test for festival volunteer rules will come this summer

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Any observers of last year’s controversy over the use of unpaid workers at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay could have been forgiven for thinking it had fizzled out along with the last of the fireworks above the castle as 2017 turned into 2018.

A last-minute capitulation by the new organisers of the celebrations, to ensure that managers and supervisors would be paid after all, averted the threat of “direct action” from campaigners against the exploitation in the events and hospitality industries.

The ending of the impasse, after more than a month of bad publicity for the event and the city, was confirmed just days before the event was due to be staged and only after emergency talks with union officials.

The Hogmanay row emails reveal the extent of legal wrangling over the use of volunteers at the event, with specialist employment experts called into to defend the position of Underbelly, the company awarded an £813,000 annual contract to produce the city’s winter festivals for the first time, after claims by union officials that their plans were illegal.

The company, which has grown to become one of the leading Fringe producers, insisted it was confident of its “moral position” before its showdown with Better Than Zero last December, but then agreed to its demands. By then, behind the scenes, senior councillors had decided enough was enough and that new guidelines were needed to “protect” volunteers enlisted by the city’s major festivals, help avoid the events themselves coming under attack in future and ensure there are “clear expectations on all sides.”

Strangely, the extent of this pledge to deal with the Hogmanay volunteers fall-out has only become clear now thanks to the release of dozens of emails on the affair, released under freedom of information legislation. At the time, council officials were worried about how such guidelines could be enforced on events that it funds. By the time the pledge was made public, it was substantially watered down to the extent it was virtually meaningless.

But within weeks, councillors had voted in favour of a clear “code of practice” for event organisers being introduced in time for this summer’s festivals.

It is notable that the first official report on these proposals makes it clear that volunteers roles should not be used to replace paid employment - a key criticism of the Hogmanay Ambassadors scheme, which was consistently dismissed by Underbelly, before and after its u-turn.

Activists involved in the Better Than Zero and Fair Fringe campaigns will undoubtedly be casting an eagle-eye on the “consistent set of guidelines” for the festivals on volunteering.

The council insists the new guidelines will allow still allow events to deploy volunteers, but will insist they are “treated fairly and benefit from the experience.”

What this means in reality will have to be tested this summer. But it could mean big trouble for festivals which are using volunteers for rules which are paid by other event organisers. While there is already some concern within the council about how it can enforce its new guidelines on events, promoters and venues, it would seem downright naive for any that rely on council funding to ignore them.

And after its success on the Hogmanay initiative, the campaigners who have already won all-party support for their efforts will not be slow to highlight other cases of alleged exploitation where it comes across them.