Cheap Labour and the Edinburgh Fringe
Last week Stewart Lee wrote a column for the Guardian about the profiteering promoters who are making it increasingly difficult for performers to bring their work to the Edinburgh Fringe, and it has finally become socially acceptable to talk about the exploitative aspects of the world’s largest arts festival. Since then, other articles have started popping up, detailing exactly how much money venues and promoters can make under the pay-to-play economic model, where performers take all of the financial risk. Artists who take their shows to Edinburgh are paying thousands of pounds out of their own pockets in the hope of being talent-spotted, but they’re not the only ones that the promoters are screwing over.
Unpaid labour is endemic in the creative industries, and the Fringe is no different. While there are some paying jobs available, there are also plenty of organisations – including a few big names – that are staffed mainly by volunteers and interns. The Edinburgh Festival Jobs website provides a small-ads service for venues, promoters, and theatre companies seeking temporary assistance, many of whom expect their staff to work long hours for no remuneration. If you want to gain experience in PR or management, you might be expected to work seven days a week in exchange for no more than a contribution towards your ticket to Edinburgh. If you fancy being involved in the Edinburgh International Festival’s “mass participation event” Speed of Light, you can apply for a bursary of up to £100 to help cover your expenses for the twenty-four days when you’ll be expected to spend up to eight hours working on the performance.
While the Fringe was once a celebration of independent and alternative arts, run on shoestring budgets and fuelled by caffeine, takeaways and cheap beer, today it’s a highly professional operation, where vast sums of money change hands. But despite all of the money sloshing around, a few major venues are still paying their staff well below the minimum wage. Production company theSpaceUK, which runs eight separate venues, recruits “volunteers” and pays them an unspecified “subsistence allowance” to work in its box office, press office, and technical team. C Venues, one of the largest theatre organisations at the Fringe, compensate their “semi-voluntary” staff with free accommodation and a “minimal freelance fee”.
But perhaps the worst offender for sub-minimum wage work at the Fringe is one of its largest venue operators: Pleasance. Their volunteers are expected to work every single day for five weeks, and rumour suggests that a working day can be up to sixteen hours. Everyone, from runners and box office assistants up to venue managers, gets the same payment – accommodation and £600. Legally, only £33.11 per week of the cost of employer-provided accommodation can be counted towards the minimum wage, so Pleasance staff are effectively being paid £153.11 for each of their seven-day working weeks. Forty hours of work at the National Minimum Wage will earn you £243.20, and these guys are working a hell of a lot more than forty hours.
It would be unfair if I didn’t explain that Pleasance – who are reckoned to sell about one fifth of all Fringe tickets – are officially a charity, and can therefore legitimately take on volunteer staff. However, the Festival Fringe Society is also a charity, and they manage to pay all of their staff at least minimum wage. So do Underbelly, the Assembly Rooms, and Gilded Balloon; these venues are Pleasance’s main competitors, and they all charge around the same price for tickets. And since Gilded Balloon are also located in Edinburgh University Students’ Association buildings, they’re probably also paying comparable rent.
It doesn’t seem right that so many Fringe venues should rely heavily on sub-minimum wage labour. This means that jobs at the Fringe, like so many roles in the creative industries, are closed to all but the relatively affluent, maintaining bubbles of privilege where even the menial staff are comfortably middle class. The allowances paid to volunteer Fringe staff puts these jobs out of the reach of unemployed locals, because you can’t sign on if you’re not making yourself available for work and doing your agreed job-seeking activities, and they don’t pay enough to cover the loss of benefits. An allowance and accommodation might be enough to cover expenses for students and gap year kids looking for an interesting way to pass the summer, but since even senior staff are expected to work for minimal payment, some will presumably come from the growing numbers of long-term interns – a socially exclusive group that only those with financially supportive parents can afford to join.
A love of the arts is entirely commendable, but it won’t pay your rent and you can’t eat it, so it’s unrealistic to expect festival staff to spend weeks working for little more than the love of the job . While the Fringe relies on the generosity of well-off mummies and daddies to subsidise a substantial chunk of its workforce, it’s keeping locals in the dole queue, and helping to lock talented people from less wealthy backgrounds out of certain careers.