Mary Alexander is a member of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission, and Assistant Scottish Secretary of Unite.  During ‘Living Wage Week’ she reflects here on the experiences of workers in Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe.

In August this year Edinburgh was once again buzzing with Festival activity as performers, producers, storytellers, and singers gathered for the city’s annual frenzied outpouring of all things creative.  Meanwhile, the hospitality sector flexed its ample muscles to accommodate, fuel, and refresh around a million visitors who descended on the city hungry for culture.  

This festival experience is one of the features that makes Edinburgh a unique city and a vibrant economy. Behind the scenes, however, those who are struggling with the challenges of poverty in this unequal city find little refuge in the work and income opportunities afforded by the Fringe.

A survey by The Fringe Society last year found that 54% of Fringe Workers paid by the hour received less than the then national minimum wage of £7.50 per hour or were paid youth rates.  The survey also found that 34% of those contracted to work were on zero-hour contracts despite the fact that nearly 48% of them worked more than 49 hours a week.  Some 31% of respondents were working more than 10 hours per day and 49% of Fringe workers reported to not having breaks factored into their shifts.  If these abuses were not enough, there is significant and supported evidence of verbal and physical abuse of staff, not to mention sexual harassment. 

A quick glance over the myriad of adverts for the Fringe are revealing with very few mentioning any remuneration.  The 2019 Fair Fringe Advertising Exploitation report highlighted numerous examples of exploitative practices which took place during this year’s fringe. Purple Martian Comedy’s advert for their Street Team stated that workers will receive “1 full day off in the middle of the Fringe” and PQA Venues expected workers “to be available to work every day throughout the Fringe, working an average 4-6 hours per day including weekends, so plenty of time to enjoy the festival, see shows and have fun!”. 

C Venues hit the headlines last year for using volunteers to cover paid work.  This year in response to an email inquiry for work, they generously explained they would “reimburse expenses of up to £3.00 per day for a shift of between 3 and 5 hours, £6 per day for each voluntary shift of between 5 and 10 hours and £9 per day for a shift of more than 10 hours”.  If you total up the volunteering programme for those working the full shifts between 15 July to 30August for C Venues this adds up to income earned over the Fringe of between £250 to £300.  The Fair Fringe report on poverty pay points out “you can’t pay bills or buy food with experience, and volunteers don’t have the same employment rights as workers and employees”.

Writing for The Scotsman earlier this year, Cliff Hague of The Cockburn Association suggested that Edinburgh is now effectively run by the tourist industry and more importantly the “idea that Edinburgh City Council exists to serve the citizens who live there may seem quaint, but it is important”. I wholeheartedly agree.  

The unions across Edinburgh including The Fair Fringe and Edinburgh TUC have been campaigning for ‘Fair Rights’ for Fringe workers for some years, and the Council have set out expectations for businesses who lease Council venues during the Fringe which include paying the living wage of £9.30 an hour; appropriate rest breaks (16-18 year olds should have a 30-minute rest if working more than 4½ hours); no unpaid trial shifts; and equitable distribution of tips. 

After unanimously supporting the Fair Work Hospitality Charter in 2017, we would hope to see a further firm steer from the Council to look after all citizens. This means raising the bar regarding hospitality businesses paying at least the living wage of £9.30 per hour; transport home for staff after 12 midnight; the cessation of abusive zero-hour contracts; paid breaks for all; the payment of all tips to staff, and robust policies against sexual harassment at work. 

There are some beacons of hope in the generally gloomy picture.  Edinburgh’s fifth largest employer in the hospitality business, Summerhall, last year signed a union recognition agreement and are working with Unite to promote the ‘Fair Fringe Campaign’ with drop in sessions on workers’ rights held regularly at their venue throughout the Fringe.  As Unite Hospitality member Steph Leach commented “I used to have to put up with terrible conditions in a Mexican Restaurant, now that we have a Union we enjoy decent conditions at Summerhall”. 

The Stand Comedy Clubs in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle too have recently agreed to sign up to the ‘Fair Hospitality Charter’, which will see their workers receiving an immediate pay rise to the living wage; moving staff onto minimum hour contracts and off zero-hour contracts and paid transport home after 11pm.  Fair play to New Town Theatre too who, this summer, signed up to the ‘Hospitality Charter’ giving 135 staff £9 per hour, paid taxis home after 11.30pm and minimum hours contracts.

The Fringe Society estimate the value to Edinburgh of this event is £200 million. The citizens of Edinburgh should see their fair share of this value and the Council, venues, visitors, and businesses, all have key roles to play in ensuring the benefits to the economy can be shared by everyone. 

These are all issues on which my Edinburgh Poverty Commission colleagues have been reflecting during our work this year to design the steps needed to end poverty in Edinburgh.  The Festival Fringe is far from the only part of the Edinburgh economy in which the challenge of fair work and living wages needs to be taken up.  It is clear, however, that poverty in Edinburgh will not end without positive action to improve the pay, terms and conditions that the majority of Fringe workers experience every year.