Leader comment: Fringe cannot become a sweatshop festival

The Festival Fringe is a wonderful event but a new report paints a grim picture of conditions experienced by some workers (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
The Festival Fringe is a wonderful event but a new report paints a grim picture of conditions experienced by some workers (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
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A grim dossier drawn up by campaigners claims working conditions of some staff at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe threatens their mental health.

A job at the world’s biggest arts festival has long been seen as an experience, a working holiday or perhaps a chance to get a foot in the door of the showbiz world. Some shows are put on not for profit but simply for the fun of doing it and the hope of one day ‘making it big’.

But the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is also a multi-million-pound business with nearly 2.7 million tickets sold during last year’s event. There are plenty people who are making quite a lot of money out of this wonderful extravaganza of the arts – and not just those with flats in the New Town to rent out.

READ MORE: Edinburgh festivals ‘must ensure fair pay for workers’

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. People should be able to make a good living out of entertaining others, providing some light relief in these times of austerity.

However, they need to make sure they are not exploiting the goodwill and the desire to be involved of backroom staff by imposing the austerity-style wages and Dickensian working conditions described in a new report by the Fair Fringe campaign. A grim dossier compiled by the activists claims some major venues pay staff a wage equivalent to just 50p an hour – by claiming the roles are voluntary – while making them work excessive hours without a break and putting them up in crowded, sub-standard accommodation. Conditions are said to be so bad that they are even threatening the physical and mental health of workers.

The Fringe Society pointed to a survey from last year which found that 90 per cent of respondents would return to work at the festival, so it would appear such conditions are only experienced by a minority. But that is still not acceptable.

READ MORE: Fringe venue pledges fair conditions for all following ‘landmark’ agreement

In its earliest days, there was an amateur spirit about the Fringe but its success has turned the event into big business. And, as such, those involved as employers need to shoulder the responsibilities of a big business and ensure their staff are treated fairly. Just as the Fringe has changed, so has the world. The minimum wage and national living wage have been enshrined in law with companies that fail to abide by them ‘named and shamed’ by the UK Government.

Fringe companies should, therefore, take care. The showbiz maxim “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” – attributed to Phineas T Barnum – may be true in the world of theatre, but gaining a reputation as a sweatshop festival would bring shame upon the event, Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole.