Brian Ferguson: Heat is on Fringe operators over fair pay for staff

Returning from the relative peace, quiet and cool temperatures of the Outer Hebrides, even during one of their biggest events, to the searing heat of the Royal Mile during the final countdown to the start of the Fringe is not an experience I am in any hurry to repeat.

Along with other major UK cities, Edinburgh seemed to have been wilting in the heat in my absence. I could not help but wonder how the city would cope were the temperatures to remain at record-breaking levels over the next month with the mass influx of expected visitors.

Warm weather brings winners and losers in Edinburgh in summer. While bar and restaurant owners have already had an unprecedented bonanza in recent months, museums and galleries will undoubtedly have suffered.

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Most Fringe venues are indoors and may in theory offer respite from the heat they are largely notorious for their lack of air-conditioning, even in what passes for normal Fringe weather.

The operators of Fringe venues may have another reason to sweat if union officials have their way next month.

A new phase of the “Fair Fringe” campaign was heralded last week with the announcement of the first deal with a major venue since it was launched this time last year.

While the agreement with Summerhall is something of a PR coup for a venue that has been no stranger to controversy in since it opened six years ago, it is also a handy bargaining tool for the Unite union, which is behind the Fair Fringe campaign.

Summerhall, which previously paid all its Fringe workers above the minimum wage, tell me the main shift in their arrangements for paying staff is scrapping zero hours contracts and guaranteeing its full-time Fringe staff minimum contracts of 30 hours a week.

Crucially, it has also promise the Unite union that all of its staff will be entitled to breaks, given several weeks notice of rotas and receive 100 per cent of tips.

The venue, which is run by arts impresario Robert McDowell, has also vowed to ban the use of volunteers.

These are basically in line with the demands of the union which has won the crucial backing of both city council leader Adam McVey and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over the last 12 months.

It was telling how much praise was lavished on Summerhall for meeting the minimum standards Unite believes should be the norm across the Fringe.

Instead, it has pointed out that the measures put in place by Sunmerhall, along with the Stand Comedy Club, which also runs the New Town Theatre, are the exception rather than the rule.

It is unlikely Unite will be content to rest on its laurels with a minor PR coup before the Fringe even bursts into full life at the end of this week. In fact it would be no surprise if there was a gradual cranking up of the heat some Fringe promoters have been feeling over the last year or so.

Bryan Simpson, the Unite official spearheading the Fair Fringe campaign, has declared that he hopes the agreement the union has struck with Summerhall will send out a “clear message” to others. I interpreted this as an early shot across the bows of Fringe operators.

How willing or able other Fringe employers are to dance to the tune of the Unite union and introduce new pay and conditions for staff is likely to become clear within the next fortnight.