Edinburgh Fringe venues ‘won’t be banned’ over exploitation claims

Fringe boss Shona McCarthy. Picture: Greg Macvean
Fringe boss Shona McCarthy. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Under-fire Edinburgh Festival Fringe bosses have refused to ban venues and show producers accused of exploiting workers from their official programme and website.

Chief executive Shona McCarthy has refused to bow to demands from Fair Fringe activists who claim the festival is “turning a blind eye” to unfair and unsafe conditions.

Ms McCarthy said the Fringe Society took instances of poor practice “very seriously” but insisted the right approach was to “work with people to find solutions, to support and improve.”

She also highlighted the Fringe Society’s long-standing “open access” policy, which dates back to its 1947 origins, when the event was formed by eight theatre companies excluded from the first Edinburgh International Festival.

Ms McCarthy has been under fire for claiming that a Fair Fringe campaign aimed at ensuring the Living Wage is paid in all venues is threatening the event’s future.

Activists have singled out C Venues for “overworking, underpaying and generally mistreating their staff.” But Ms McCarthy also criticised the Fair Fringe campaign for “vilifying” promoters and depicting them as “evil megalomaniacs.” She suggested its activists were more interested in “hyperbole” and “exaggeration” than facts about the Fringe landscape and the different business models behind venues.

Responding to formal complaints to the Fringe Society about her stance, Ms McCarthy said: “We take very seriously any instance of poor practice and, alongside many of our peers in the arts, we’re continually reviewing and adapting our approach to better support the people that make the festival happen.

“The Fringe Society has never had a policy of banning or excluding, whether that be venues, companies or shows.

“Our approach has been to work with people to find solutions, to support and improve. We’re exploring all options for ensuring that codes of best practice are adhered to and the Fringe continues to be a positive environment to visit, perform and work in.

“Last year, we distributed posters to every venue to ensure workers and performers know their rights, met with the city council, Edinburgh University and other key stakeholders to explore ways of working together to ensure the best culture and conditions for a Fringe that works for everyone, and have held one-to-one meetings with venues to address any concerns raised.

“We met with representatives from the campaign both before and after last year’s Fringe. We’ve invited representatives to address venues at our upcoming managers’ meeting, and look forward to welcoming them for an important discussion about the issues and ways forward.”

In a further lengthy statement posted on the official Fringe website, Ms McCarthy said: “I love the Fringe, and so do the people who have taken time to correspond with the Fringe Society over the last few days to ask about our efforts to ensure fair treatment of workers and volunteers. Like them, we believe that adopting the highest possible employment standards is both morally and economically beneficial for everyone involved in the Fringe. We are unequivocal in our condemnation of any form of exploitation.

“The Fringe Society has taken a considered and determined approach to supporting fair employment and volunteering models of best practice, both within the Society and across our partner organisations and Fringe venues.

“Whilst the Fringe Society is a charity and a living-wage employer, we acknowledge that it is more challenging to implement a single approach across all 317 venues who are registered within the Fringe Programme.

“The Fringe is (and has always been) an eclectic ecosystem which features a wide variety of operating models, from volunteer-run theatre groups and small not-for-profits, to larger-scale, year-round operators and permanent venues.

“It is important to recognise that both volunteer and staffed models have a part to play across the festival landscape. Our focus is to ensure that individuals who want to work or participate at the Fringe are provided with as much information as possible to make an informed choice, and that these models remain true to the principles that the festival was founded upon.”

However Fair Fringe spokeswoman Kirsty Haigh said there had been a concerted effort by the Fringe Society to “bury” problems with exploitative businesses.

She added: “They know about the problems in places like C Venues and, instead of turning a blind eye, they could use their power and influence to make positive change.

“Attacking people like us for raising the concerns is no solution. They need to step up and meet the demand we have been making for the last three years. They need to stop companies who breach the Fair Fringe charter from advertising in the Fringe Programme or outlets - starting with C Venues. There’s no commitment, no apology and no acceptance of the problems.

“If the Fringe Society really want to recover from your claims that people don’t need to be properly paid for the work they do and for their role in facilitating venues exploiting people, then it’s time to do the right thing.

“Stop ignoring the easiest and most straightforward solution - one that has been there all along. Use the biggest pressure point they have and don’t let exploitative businesses advertise in the Fringe programme.”