Grass-roots promoters are demanding an overhaul of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to end the “exploitation” of venue workers and ensure it is properly regulated for the first time.
The Fringe Society is facing growing demands to prevent the event becoming a “playground for the privileged” unless firmer action is taken over poor pay and conditions.
Critics have warned some Fringe venues are running the risk of breaking employment laws in their use of poorly-paid staff or volunteers, claiming some are expected to work for free for a month or go into debt just to be part of the Fringe.
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A backlash against the director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards has emerged after she warned the “spirit of the Fringe” would suffer if venues and promoters faced too much regulation.
Nica Burns said it was vital that people were able to have “freedom of choice” of whether to work in venues that did not have “standard working practices.”
Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy has criticised Fair Fringe activists, who are campaigning for an end to the exploitation of festival workers, for unfairly vilifying venue operators and depicting them as “evil megalomaniacs.”
She claims it is unrealistic to try to impose the Living Wage demands on every venue.
However Bob Slayer, who introduced the “pay what you want” concept at the Fringe, said: “Exploitation does not need to be built into the Fringe model. To claim it is an inevitability or a choice for individuals, rather than something that works to the advantage of business, is just not true.
“If we don’t find ways to include individuals who are unable to afford to work for free for a month or go into debt just to be part of the festival, then it risks becoming out of touch and irrelevant, and a playground for privileged folk.
“We want a Fringe Society that helps us ask the difficult questions and defends those people that make the Fringe more interesting – the staff and performers themselves, venues that pay their staff and performers, and campaigns that actively challenge and promote inclusivity. Most of all, we want it to defend artistic purpose over commercial interests.”
Free Festival director Alex Petty said: “Rejecting calls for regulation is ridiculous, when there is already is regulation: it’s called employment law. And it seems something larger Fringe venues and employers wish to ignore or circumnavigate to help increase their profits – while pretending this is in the name of the arts.
“I don’t think the original theatre groups in 1947 imagined their ‘spirit of the Fringe’ would be translated into a reason for staff to work all month for long hours, with no days off and minimal pay, to support businesses renting spaces to performers for many thousands of pounds to turn over even bigger profits.”
Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill said: “The Fringe does not need to have workers under unacceptable conditions, and the Free Fringe has proved that. If the Fringe cannot survive without unacceptable conditions for its non-performing workers, then it should die. It is not worthy to live if it thrives at the expense of others.”
Mike Jones, managing diredctor of The Stand comedy club, said: “Nica Burns’ comments were breathtakingly outrageous, arrogant, out of touch with the reality of working conditions for many at the Fringe, and typifying an elite attitude that righty breeds resentment from people working at the sharp end of the Fringe economy.
“Wealthy people have always argued against regulations put in place to protect workers. This isn’t some red-tape heavy, overly bureaucratic block to creative endeavour that she’s arguing against – its fundamental Employment Law.
“This isn’t 1947, the world has moved on. Safety, fair pay and protection from harassment at work are basic workers rights - the spirit of the fringe needs to change with the times.
“We are proud to be an accredited Living Wage employer and subscriber to the Fair Fringe charter. Offering good terms and conditions to our employees makes business sense to us – we have a hard working and loyal team, many of whom have worked for us for a number of years. Our remarkably low staff turnover is in part due to the fact that we offer some of the best pay and conditions in the sector.”
Ms Burns was unavailable for comment. The Fringe Society declined to coment.