Liam Rudden: City’s festivals should pay ‘volunteers’ living wage

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AS the 70th anniversary of the Festival and Fringe approaches, the 34th I will have been involved with in some capacity, it’s time for my annual rant, the one that revolves around my love/hate relationship with Edinburgh in August.

This year, it’s Festivals Edinburgh’s decision to target ‘deprived’ areas such as Granton, Craigmillar and Sighthill in a £30,000 scheme to find 40 volunteers to work for nothing that has raised my ire.

Edinburgh should be, and is, rightly proud of the Fringe and International Festival that, along with a plethora of smaller festivals, now consume the city come August. It ensures the Capital remains vibrant, relevant and on the tourist radar.

There was a time when it was the ‘art’ that made the Festival special. For art read ‘people’. It was an exciting world in which you could experiment and collaborate with like-minded artists, a colourful adventure open to anyone; I remember performing in a venue on the Lawnmarket for a box office split. Can you imagine that deal now?

Let’s not kid ourselves, today’s Festivals are gargantuan commercial operations as much about bar spend as shows; just look at the pop-up bars and temporary food outlets, the £5 pints and pizza slices that cost what would normally buy a whole one.

On the show front, bigger venues now produce their own shows and the time-letting agreements used by many ensure they have made their money from visiting companies before a ticket has been sold.

I’ll qualify that by saying it doesn’t apply to all venues. There are still some that have their eye on the creative process, one reason I like working with Sweet Venues and Le Monde Hotel. Summerhall is another, but these creative hubs are few and far between.

You know commercialism rules when you hear of larger Fringe venues poaching shows from smaller ones with offers of five figure guarantees. So yes, there’s big money at stake for some.

Which is why it strikes me as obscene that in 2017, Festivals Edinburgh should be ‘proudly’ recruiting unpaid volunteers to be the ‘friendly and welcoming face’ of Edinburgh. I seem to recall not that long ago we had paid wardens doing just that.

In return they’ll get access to the EIF curtain-raiser, which is free anyway, a preview of the Tattoo, and discounted tickets. All pretty patronising considering volunteers must agree to do a minimum of six four-hour shifts. That’s 24 hours, which, at the living wage (£8.45 an hour) would be £202.80. Multiply that by 40 and someone is saving £8,112, a pittance compared with what the Festivals bring to the city but likely a god-send to those targeted.

Considering the outcry four years ago when the Royal family were accused of offering a ‘medieval’ wage for a similar post at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (they were paying 95p less than the city council’s ‘Living Wage’) Festivals Edinburgh should be fighting to ensure a fair wage for everyone rather than appearing to cosy up to commercial concerns that now rule the city in August.

We should indeed be proud of our festivals, but for the right reasons.