Charity pulls support for ‘exploitative’ Hogmanay volunteer programme

Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebration
Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebration
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A new row has erupted over plans to recruit more than 300 unpaid workers for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations after a leading volunteering charity withdrew backing for the scheme.

Volunteer Scotland has dropped promotion of the “Hogmanay Ambassadors” after exploitation concerns were raised by the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Both parties are said to have agreed that using two 150-strong teams of unpaid managers, supervisors and ambassadors to work on 30 and 31 December breaches agreed industry guidelines.

Volunteer Scotland, which had proposed a “mediation” process to try to defuse a growing row over the scheme, has removed adverts from its website, citing a “long standing jointly signed charter with the STUC, which includes the key principle of volunteers not substituting for paid staff”.

However, new organisers of the celebrations claim none of the volunteers they are recruiting will be replacing any “paid-for” roles and insist they are standing by their plans.

STUC chiefs said the principles of volunteering were at risk of being “stretched to destruction” by the actions of Underbelly, which has taken over the running of the festivities for the first time ahead of the 25th event. The union said Volunteer Scotland’s move to “de-legitimise” the scheme had also cast doubt on its backing from the city council, which has awarded an £800,000 annual contract to Underbelly.

A statement from the STUC said: “Underbelly, a private company which won the public contract to run the landmark cultural event, wants staff to work throughout the night in exchange for limited travel expenses and a certificate.

“The exploitative initiative was highlighted by the Better than Zero campaign against precarious work, and the Fair Fringe campaign that is fighting for better conditions for workers at the Fringe and other cultural events in Edinburgh.”

Dave Moxham, deputy general secretary of the STUC, added: “Like Volunteer Scotland, we value the importance of genuine volunteering which is to the benefit of individual volunteers and society more generally. But the principles of volunteering risk being stretched to destruction by attempts of private events and entertainment companies like Underbelly.

“These companies prey on the young people trying to gain a foot-hold in industries like events and entertainment, and court organisations and public bodies to gain legitimacy.

“We need to be vigilant in preventing unpaid work from becoming the norm, and Volunteer Scotland’s decision to remove the posts sets an encouraging precedent.

“We look forward to working with Volunteer Scotland to clarify that volunteering is about giving time to the community and society for its own sake, and not a cost-cutting fix for profit-making ventures.”

George Thomson, chief executive of Volunteer Scotland, said: “Volunteer Scotland has a long standing jointly signed charter with the STUC which includes the key principle of volunteers not substituting for paid staff.

“The STUC think that Underbelly volunteering opportunities are breaching this principle, and are in dispute along with Unite Union, and Better than Zero youth led campaign.

“All promotion of Underbelly volunteering opportunities by Volunteer Scotland have been suspended pending the resolution of the dispute.”

The Hogmanay Ambassadors programme was not part of Underbelly’s bid to take over the running of the three-day Hogmanay festival, which was awarded by councillors ahead of proposals by Unique Events, the firm which had produced the festival since its inception.

Underbelly has come under fire from politicians, union leaders and campaigners against exploitation in the hospitality industry for their recruitment drive.

Volunteers will only get meal vouchers and “reasonable” travel expenses for working at an event worth around £40 million to the city’s economy.

Underbelly has claimed it is the victim of a “sorry climate of bashing success” and accused critics of belittling the motivations of volunteers and confusing “real issues around getting people into paid and secure employment”.

A spokeswoman for Underbelly said: “Underbelly absolutely refutes STUC’s claims that our volunteer programme replaces any paid for roles and stand by our ambassador programme and the mutual benefits that it is set to bring.

“It is completely unfounded that we are looking to replace paid for employment. Anything to the contrary is pure subjection.

“Underbelly welcomed the invitation to meet with the STUC and Volunteer Scotland to discuss STUC concerns surrounding the volunteer engagement campaign.

“However, at the request of the STUC, this meeting went ahead without Underbelly present.

“Volunteer Scotland has told us that they have removed their advertisement to maintain a balanced position until these talks had taken place.

“We are actively seeking to meet with the STUC as soon as possible and we are very much open to continuing a dialogue with key partners which further develops future opportunities and ensures that we are delivering the best possible experience and practice.”

Donald Wilson, the city council’s culture leader, has previously backed Underbelly’s proposals to recruit volunteers, insisting they had been inspired by a new summer festivals volunteering programme.

A spokeswoman for the council said: “We understand Volunteer Scotland has made this decision pending further discussions with all parties.

“The council will do whatever it can to help resolve this matter as early as possible.”