Edinburgh councillors vow to tackle Festival Fringe rogue operators

Fringe boss Shona McCarthy. Pic: Greg Macvean
Fringe boss Shona McCarthy. Pic: Greg Macvean
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COUNCILLORS have vowed to step up efforts to tackle rogue operators of Edinburgh Festival Fringe venues in the wake of efforts by campaigners to expose exploitation of workers at the event.

They have pledged to apply more pressure on operators to pay the Living Wage and ensure safe working conditions are in place at this summer’s festival after a damning dossier was compiled by the Fair Fringe campaign, warning: “The goalposts have shifted.”

Rogue Fringe companies face being turned down for licences and being banned from hiring council properties under the crackdown, which has been ordered less than a year after the council published a new code of practice for the treatment of festival workers.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief’s full statement on ‘Living Wage’ criticism

Produced in response to lobbying from the Fair Fringe campaign and the Unite Union, the council’s code of practice urges festivals to ensure staff are paid no less than a Living Wage of £8.51 an hour, guaranteed rest breaks, not used for unpaid trial shifts and protected from harassment.

It adds: “Our commitment sets out what we expect for festival workers and where we would like others to follow. We expect those engaging festival workers to adopt pay policies which comply with fair work practices.”

However a subsequent Fair Fringe report cited widespread evidence of workers “being underpaid, poorly treated and working in precarious conditions” and “shameful practices so common they are now accepted as the status quo.”

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, sparked controversy at the weekend by criticising campaigners for portraying venue operators and producers as “evil megalomaniacs” and being more interested in “hyperbole” and “exaggeration” than facts. Fair Fringe campaigner Kirsty Haigh told councillors that some workers who provided evidence had ended up in hospital and even considered suicide due to being overworked and stressed.

She later said: “We’re delighted that the council is going to examine all the ways in which they can help enforce our Fair Fringe Charter. It needs to use all the available tools to ensure that no worker in the Fringe is exploited again.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Festival Fringe bosses won’t issue ‘exploitation’ bans

“We don’t want to be hearing stories of underpaid and overworked staff, we don’t want there to be more people reaching out to us with desperate pleas of help because no one else is stepping up to fight for them. There is still so much more that needs to be done but we look forward to seeing the step up and take action.”

Morgan Tooth, spokesman for the Unite union’s Fair Hospitality campaign, said: “We now await hearing what measures the council and licensing board are prepared to take beyond agreeing to the sentiment of the Fair Fringe campaign. We hope to hear more about measures that can be taken to increase transparency and accountability of operators to the licensing board. It’s within their power to do more than offer optional guidelines on employment standards.”

Donald Wilson, the council’s culture leader, said he was “very concerned” at the evidence presented by Fair Fringe and would be looking to enforce its code of practice much stronger in future.

He said: “We’ve done a large amount activity over the last year and a half. We’ve attempted to get the ball rolling by establishing the bare minimum of requirements and by leading with example with our own venues. Where it is not our venue, we will be looking into how to encourage, and where possible enforce, compliance with the guidelines we have set.

“We need clarity on how we can apply more pressure and push things forward by influencing non-council venues more.

“The goal posts have moved as a result of information that’s come forward. The Fair Fringe movement is to be commended for that.”

Green councillor Alex Staniforth said: “The Fringe has said that it has a policy of not banning anyone but working with them to address problems.

“Working to solve problems is great and inclusivity is important for the arts to flourish but not at the expense of being inclusive of exploitation. That’s where the line should be drawn.”