Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief says ‘fair pay’ activists a threat to event

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, said operators were being vilified. Picture: Greg Macvean
Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, said operators were being vilified. Picture: Greg Macvean
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The head of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has warned that a campaign targeting poor treatment of workers in venues is threatening the event’s future.

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, said producers and promoters were being unfairly vilified and portrayed as “evil megalomaniacs” by Fair Fringe activists.

I can’t embrace anything that just tries to impose a one-size-fits-all agenda

She suggested they were more interested in “hyperbole” and “exaggeration” than facts about the Fringe landscape and the different business models behind venues.

A survey of Fringe workers carried out in 2017 found that nearly one in three were unpaid, with nearly half working more than 49 hours a week and a quarter paid less than £1,000 over the festival.

However, McCarthy has insisted that demands for all Fringe producers and venues to pay workers the Living Wage are unrealistic and would see the end of the Free Fringe strand of the festival.

She said it was “simply untrue” to suggest it was a huge commercial event making millions of pounds for some people, and insisted that “hard-working cultural practitioners” were increasingly under “massive pressure” to keep it affordable and retain its crown as the world’s most accessible festival while “trying to wash their faces economically”.

The Fair Fringe campaign, set up in 2017 to tackle “exploitation and illegal practices” at the festival, wants all workers paid at least the Living Wage of £8.75 an hour, offered paid transport home after midnight, and guaranteed rest breaks. Bans on the use of zero hours contracts and unpaid “trial shifts” are also demanded.

Last month the Fair Fringe campaign singled out C Venues, one of the biggest producers of shows, accusing it of imposing draconian conditions on workers and paying them as little as £200 for the whole festival, and demanding the Fringe Society ban C Venues over “an unacceptable model built on exploitation, underpayment and overworked staff”.

However McCarthy said: “I just don’t think it’s the right approach. It is so aggressive and is about vilifying individual operators without actually understanding the whole landscape and sitting down and having a conversation with them. We’re not talking about evil megalomaniacs here. We’re talking about hard-working cultural practitioners. It’s about trying to work with people to understand their problems and challenges.”

A Fair Fringe dossier published last summer stated: “There is an enormous amount of money floating around the city during the Fringe and none of the workers who make it happen should be paid less than the real Living Wage of £8.75 – not just because it is what people need to survive, but also because it would go some way to recognise the value of every contribution in making the Fringe as incredible as it is.”

McCarthy said: “I can’t embrace anything that just tries to impose a one-size-fits all agenda on to a Fringe landscape that is just diverse and thrives on that diversity.

“I have real empathy for operators and promoters. On the one hand they’re under massive pressure to keep the Fringe affordable, but on the other they’re trying to wash their faces economically. You can’t impose a Living Wage across a landscape where you’ve got everything from tiny operators and voluntary organisations where nobody is paid, to cultural entrepreneurs running businesses, but at a loss.”

A Fair Fringe spokeswoman said: “It’s unacceptable to see the Fringe Society facilitating venues exploiting people. Ensuring that Fringe workers have decent working conditions is not forcing venues into a one-size-fits-all way of operating but simply ensuring a basic standard is met through their operating models.”