Edinburgh Fringe urged to ban top venue in fair pay row

Some of the more than 200 different shows staged by C Venues, which is one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's biggest promoters.
Some of the more than 200 different shows staged by C Venues, which is one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's biggest promoters.
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Campaigners against the exploitation of people working at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe are demanding one of its biggest producers of shows is banned from its programme for its treatment of workers.

Fair Fringe activists have revealed a damning dossier on C Venues – which stages more than 200 different shows at the festival each year – accusing the promoter of imposing draconian conditions and paying staff as little as £200 for the whole festival.

The group say its investigation has found C Venues flouted the vast majority of a good practice charter aimed at ensuring venue workers were paid the Living Wage, got proper rest breaks, were properly consulted on rotas and got their transport home paid if they had to work after midnight.

The campaigners want the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, the event’s governing body, to clamp down on an operating model it says is built on “exploitation, underpayment and overworked staff” by blocking any efforts by C Venues to secure space in its published programme, official website or mobile phone app unless the promoter pledges to overhaul its pay and conditions for workers.

The campaign, which has accused C Venues of describing its staff as a volunteers to avoid paying them a proper wage, also wants landlords including Edinburgh University to refuse to hire out spaces to C Venues in future and for the council to reject licence applications by the promoter unless there is a rethink.

The new dossier on C Venues has emerged months after the promoter was awarded two out of three new “Bad Boss Awards” which were instigated by the campaign last summer to highlight the 
worst practices at the Fringe.

A previous report warned that the Fringe was being marred by the exploitation of workers due to “precarious” pay and conditions which were putting their mental and physical health at risk.

The new Fair Fringe dossier on C Venues said working practices at its venues had been raised “time and again” since the campaign’s launch in 2017.

The report states: “C Venues seemed to be confused about whether their staff were volunteers, self-employed freelancers, or workers. While they advertised for volunteers, and in many places claimed the staff were volunteers, they then gave staff contracts calling them freelancers.

“However, C Venues do not pay them enough if they were to be considered workers, but neither do they provide the appropriate conditions and benefits which would justify volunteer status.

“It is clear C Venues uses unpaid staff as a substitute for paid staff – the team is comprised almost entirely of staff receiving less than the minimum wage. Staff do not have the option to take shifts off or work fewer shifts. In contrast to legitimate volunteering, it is not a free will activity as staff don’t have a say in the roles or hours they work.”

Fair Fringe spokeswoman Kirsty Haigh said: “Overcrowded accommodation, abysmally low pay, staff overworked and stressed until they end up in hospital – these are just some of the stories C Venues staff tell in this report.

“This is a damning insight into the horrendous conditions under which they operate. It’s crystal clear the business model relies heavily on the exploitation of its staff and no company that operates like this should be allowed to take part in the Fringe.

“The Fringe Society now has a choice to make about what they want the festival to represent: if they don’t want an exploited worker to be behind every ticket sale and every pint sold, they need to start making serious changes. Venues that don’t meet the Fair Fringe charter shouldn’t be allowed to advertise in the programme and C Venues should be the first to be pulled.”

C Venue has insisted it is a “volunteer-focused organisation” that has team members who “return from year to year”.

A statement from the producers said: “We are deeply saddened to hear that a few individual members of our team have had bad experiences during their time at C Venues.

“However, the report contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations from a very small number of people, and does not reflect the experience of most of our team members.

“We ask all team members to tell us their experiences, good and bad. Only one of the team members named in the article from 2018 told us they were unhappy with their situation directly.

“By contrast, many of our volunteer team members tell us that they have gained experience, skills, and knowledge from their time with us at the Fringe, and many come back for more than one year.

“Our wish is that no one has a bad experience at C Venues. We aim to keep our volunteer programme in line with best practice and we are seeking to follow the Volunteer Scotland and Volunteer Edinburgh standards.

“We are taking steps to ensure that the operational issues experienced are not repeated, and to provide more channels for team members to communicate with us. If any member of the C Venues team, past or present, would like to speak to us about any such issues we would be happy to meet them.”

No-one was available for comment at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.