Tired of the Fringe

In an opinion piece written in March 2022 Shona McCarthy the chief executive of the Fringe Society boldly claimed “we are working to make Edinburgh Fringe the best version of itself”. The March article also links to the largest survey of Fringe workers ever undertaken. McCarthy highlights how 90% of workers would like to work at the festivals again, and yet neglects to tell us that 54% of workers were earning less than minimum wage, 36% of workers were not paid for any over time and 48% of workers were working above the legal maximum number of hours a week. Shockingly 12% of workers reported experiencing poor working conditions or discrimination, and a further 9% reported they had seen poor working practices and not experienced it themselves. If we scale those numbers and statistics up to the 6000 workers who support the festivals every year, that’s 3240 people earning less than minimum wage and it’s 720 experiencing discrimination. Those numbers are mind boggling to me.

And yet, just days after McCarthy wrote that change was coming to the festival she also claimed bad working practices only occurred in small pockets.

Since the initial articles, we have seen this very same society advertise for jobs using set fees, meaning employees are guaranteed to earn less than a minimum wage during the festival period. This itself is an illegal practice, HMRC makes clear guidelines as to when it is or isn’t appropriate to use set fees, and why hourly rates are important. The Society itself claims to be a real living wage employer, whilst demonstrating it clearly does not understand what that means.

The Scottish Government issued The Fringe Society with over £1.2mil to distribute to venues, and were confident these venues would have fair work embedded within them. However, these same venues are using identical illegal hiring practices to the Fringe Society. The Pleasance, Assembly, ZOO and Gilded Balloon all, at time of writing, have positions advertised based on set fees. 

I am tired. The sector leaders who are supposed to be steering us out of a pandemic which has compounded socio-economic deprivation, impacting those lowest earners in the arts the most, are lying to us. We are being told that good practice is happening, whilst time and time again venues and organisations are demonstrating otherwise. The Fringe Society distributing government funds, taxpayers money, is itself using bad working practices and showing a lack of knowledge on how to support low earners. It is notable that the research data gathered by the Fringe Society is dated in 2017, 5 years have passed since then and McCarthy is claiming that now is the first time the society has engaged with widespread discussions. The society has had half a decade to tackle the issues highlighted within their own research. Poor working practices have been left to stagnate in that time. 

The impacts of poor working practices are felt most by those of us from marginalised backgrounds. Low income intersects with LGBTQIA+, BIPOC+, people with disabilities, those with caring responsibilities, women and marginalised genders and of course those from working class backgrounds. It’s notable that the society launched a Working Class Producers Mentorship recently. It does not offer producers wanting to bring projects to the festivals with the money to do so, rather just £250 accommodation and travel money, £50 stipend for 3 days at the festivals and a year-long programme of support sessions including goal setting, marketing and finding accommodation. Working Class people, and those from low incomes in the arts know that the thing we need most isn’t training, it’s money. Folk from more privileged backgrounds can just afford to bring work to the festivals, not because they are better at setting goals, or marketing or finding accommodation, but because they have the cash to do so. Shockingly, the whole scheme is costing the society just £2000, that’s equal to less than a week’s wages of the chief executive.  

This is not the radical change needed to make the festival a more equitable place, it is tokenistic.

What I find most upsetting, is the appointment of Benny Higgins as chair of the Fringe Society. A millionaire who profits from private land ownership. Higgins manages the Duke of Buccleuch’s land, of which they recently sold back around 8 square miles to residents in Langholm, for a whopping £3.8 million. With a further 375 square miles under his belt, Higgins is managing land that rightfully belongs to communities in Scotland, at the worth of over £200 million. A socially just Scotland cannot happen without collapsing the private land ownership which negatively impacts working class Scottish people the most. Furthermore, the Duke’s land ownership has been linked to tax havens  meaning the money Higgins makes from private land, won’t even go towards supporting citizens here in Scotland. The system is rigged. And this is the man who was chosen by The Fringe Society to sit as their chair and lead their organisation. It is no wonder that they have no idea about the kind of support and strategies needed to support working class creatives with Benny Higgins at their helm.

I love the festivals; I love living in a city that explodes with theatre and dance and music and comedy every year. But I don’t love a festival built on the backs of low paid staff. If, as the society’s own research suggests, 54% of workers were earning less than minimum wage and 48% working illegal hours, that’s anywhere between half a million and 3 million pounds, owed to staff working at the fringe every year. I would urge anyone who has worked during the festival and not been paid an adequate salary, to report this to HMRC who can request the compensation you are owed. 

I don’t necessarily have a solution. But I also know that the society doesn’t have one too. I would suggest, instead, that they step aside and stop claiming to be able to enact positive change. They’re taking up vital space at the table which should be filled with artists, communities, creatives, and cultural workers. We need our own society, one which genuinely engages with the complex intersectional nature of the arts and supports those most vulnerable and financially fragile the most. We need a fringe union, by the workers for the workers. We need a change. 

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Comments (26)

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  1. Martin+Meteyard says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read in Bella for a while. Cogently yet passionately argued, and extremely well written, it held my attention throughout. Congratulations to the author.

  2. John Learmonth says:

    I suspect that the ‘low paid workers’ at the Fringe are public school posh kids.
    It’s a right of passage for the privately educated (like Glastonbury ) where they can pretend to be ‘normal’ , just so long as mummy and daddy are paying the rent on Fiona’s flat in Morningside for a couple of weeks.
    Not a great fan of Edinburgh, but I absolutely detest the place when the ‘Festival’ is on, no wonder half the population rents their house out and buggers off elsewhere……

    1. 220531 says:

      ‘I suspect that the ‘low paid workers’ at the Fringe are public school posh kids.’

      That’s not been my experience, John. And young people who have been educated at public schools and/or ‘talk proper’ are still entitled to statutory terms of employment.

      I don’t think it would be appropriate for the Festival Fringe Society to determine who can or cannot perform on the Fringe. The whole point of the Fringe is that it’s an open arts festival, after all, and any attempt on the part of the Society to programme or curate the festival is to be resisted.

      However, perhaps the City Council has a role to play in licensing venues and in making it a condition of a venue being granted a license that the statutory terms of employment of its own workers, and the workers employed by the producers of the shows it programmes, are honoured. It already does this in relation to licensed operations in other sectors.

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      All that culture, let’s get the hell out of here !

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Having seen Ofgen’s statistics and reports for the BBC and Channel 4, I wondered at the statement:
    “Low income intersects with LGBTQIA+”
    in the context of the Fringe and performing arts. A recent plan from the Arts Council quotes a relevant report:

    “The Arts Council’s 2018/19 Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: A Data
    report shows that overall, 6% the National Portfolio’s workforce classify
    themselves as LGBT. This equates to 8% of the permanent workforce, 7%
    of the contracted and 3% of the volunteer workforce. Across artforms, theatre
    and the visual arts tend to have a higher proportion of LGBT employees (9%),
    while in libraries less than 1% of the workforce is LGBT. The breakdown of
    LGBT workers across job levels is relatively similar (between 7-9%).
    At a leadership level, 13% of chief executives and 8% of chairs identify as
    LGBT; 7% of Boards are made up of LGBT people.”

    That suggests rather a different picture, with LGBT-identifying people over-represented in top (and presumably well-paying) jobs in the sector. Whether there is a relationship between this pattern and the British elite’s penchant for fee-paying single-sex education, I don’t know. Certainly the Sutton Trust has noted quite extreme class inequality in the sector. Perhaps another problem is lumping LGBTQIA+ as a demographic without breakdowns, which Ofgen hinted would give quite a different picture than the average.

    1. Niemand says:

      Yeah interesting but this idea that you allude to that the Festivals are manned to a major disproportionate extent by public school pupils (ex or otherwise) is simply an assertion trotted out with zero evidence. Same for the idea that most of the performers are similar. Frankly it comes across as blind prejudice.

      Here’s my own assertion, with only personal anecdotal evidence – the arts do seem to attract lesbian and gay people to a greater proportion than many other careers. Can’t comment on any of the other ‘letters’.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Niemand, please don’t confuse my comment with others. For the Sutton Trust report, see Elitist Britain:
        “research has found that individuals from higher socio-economic backgrounds have been found to be over-represented across the arts, including in film, TV, radio, music, performance, visual arts and publishing”
        and the demographic breakdowns are published by Ofcom (sorry, not Ofgen) in its annual reports on the BBC, where increasingly the category of LGB is over-represented compared to the given national percentage (9% to 4%), exceeding its “8% LGBTQ+ target for all staff and for leadership”. Given the national figure, I am not sure why double representation is a target. Meanwhile the BBC again failed to meet its targets for women:
        “Since 2018, the BBC has consistently fallen behind ITV, Channel 4 and ViacomCBS on the representation of women in its television workforce. The same is true in radio.”

        I am not suggesting that such over-representation necessarily constitutes a problem. There may be a correlation between acting professions and any group which has (had) to hide in some way and perhaps built a specific skillset as a result (and welcome equality measures might reduce that difference to zero). What I am suggesting is that a certain intersectionality of elite demographics having such an over-representation in media and creative industries (and the relative difficulty of hearing other voices) does constitute a problem. And there is evidence that sometimes such minorities may be even more over-represented in decision-making roles.

        We seem to be retreading the anti-Catholicism comments, where some view any criticism, no matter how well-evidenced, is deemed to come from a place of ignorant bigotry.

        1. 220531 says:

          But your criticism of Rosie’s critique of the Fringe and the employment practices of organisations operating at the Fringe ISN’T well-evidenced. Statistics relating to the employment of people who identify as LGBT across the arts sector in England are irrelevant to the employment practices of organisations operating at the Fringe, which (if the statistics from England were in fact found to be replicated in those relating to the Fringe and/or if Niemand’s hunch is correct and a disproportionate number of people who identify as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ are employed in the arts) would only go to show that those illegal practices do indeed disproportionately affect people from marginalised communities like those collectively designated ‘LGBTQIA+’.

          I don’t know if Creative Scotland has undertaken any similar research that would be relevant to the Fringe (or to the arts more generally in Scotland) to that undertaken by Arts Council in England. Have they?

          1. 220531 says:

            Anyway, I think Rosie’s allusion to intersectionality and the interconnected nature of social categorisations, such as race, class, and gender, as they apply those who work for venues and producers at the Edinburgh Fringe, is more pertinent to the overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage that those workers experience than a bunch of statistics plucked from a report on diversity in the arts sector in England.

        2. Rosie says:

          Hey sleeping dog,

          The fringe research linked to in the article highlights that actually a large portion of people who take on these temporary low paid roles are either unemployed or students – around 65%.

          And it’s important to also recognise that these roles being represented aren’t those typically covered in arts research: they’re front of house, temporary, some are bar work, others volunteers. The research you link to is specific to English NPO’s which do not represent the Scottish arts sector. And most importantly even if LGBTQIA+ folk made up 100% of the positions talked about in the article, they would still be being taken advantage of by poor working practices. I don’t discuss the representation of LGBTQIA+ folk, just that low income, temporary work and bad working practices tends to impact them more than heterosexuals (and this disproportionately Impacts trans folk the most, with some research stating trans folk earn up to 30% less than their cow counterparts. It’s important we don’t just focus on the G of LGBTQIA+ especially with what’s happening atm).

          So I hope that clarifies some things 🙂
          Rosie x

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Rosie, OK, cheers for that. I did look for statistics from the Edinburgh fringe site, but although they claimed many nationalities for their workforce, they had no breakdown. A Scottish-only arts sector analysis might be a little narrow, after all.

            I did mention that I didn’t think “lumping LGBTQIA+ as a demographic without breakdowns” was especially helpful. The writer of the Ofcom report seemed to agree. Anyway, I think we have to be careful to look at reasons why some measure of income disparity may exist between demographic sections. For example, if there is an explosion in the recorded number of young trans people, their average income is likely to be well below that of general population, and therefore bring the average income for trans people down. Perhaps that research takes this into account.

            As for what is going on at the moment, I don’t know exactly what you mean, but questions are bound to be raised during forthcoming court proceedings about the extent of systemic male-on-male abuses in British performing arts, and if this is a widespread problem, then what is the nature of power relations lie behind it. But I agree with the article’s main points about meeting minimum wage — preferably living wage, safe working conditions, and (although I think this is implied rather than stated) genuine opportunities for entry into progressive work in the sector.

        3. Niemand says:

          Not attacking you SD, but what I was addressing is more the picking up of the typical comment above from John Learmouth, the sort of thing you always see replicated whenever the Fringe is criticised – that it is all overrun with public school boys (and girls, and of course what that also means is ENGLISH, the worst sort of poshos!) and this is said with outright contempt. It is the sort of tone you expect btl in the Daily Mail but talking about some other group *they* hate, which would no doubt be condemned out of hand here. It is therefore both hateful and hypocritical, and of course, false – even if we accept that the sector as a whole employs more people from higher socio-economic backgrounds that does not mean they all come from public schools as the vast majority of people do not attend them.

          And as Rosie says below, and also my experience, people working at the Fringe are just ordinary young people trying to make a few quid and have a good experience, like young people anywhere – the public school tag is lies.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, perhaps in the past such roles were performed by apprentices, who at least had a professional career path ahead of them? In any case, today’s unpaid internships are discriminative against those who cannot afford to work for free.

            So what about the minimum rates? Apparently, there are still apprentice rates and 16–17-year-old-rates that pay significantly less than the full adult minimum. Is there sufficient justification for this discrimination? Did some trade unions back it? Searching online, the Scottish Trades Union Congress’ Youth Committee seemed to back the elimination of discriminatory youth rates in 2019: https://stuc.org.uk/files/Policy/Reasearch_Briefings/W_Age%20Rage%20Report.pdf
            Looking at the current UK government pages, there is a whole complicated table of minimum and living wage age-based discriminations. This seems to be more a bigger question of society exploiting the labour of the young, than specifically a Fringe issue.

          2. 220601 says:

            We’re talking mostly of part-time, temporary customer services jobs here, SD; not trade or technical apprenticeships.

            The statutory minimum wage payable by employers is currently £9.50 per hour for workers who as 23 or over, £9.18 per hour for those between 21 and 23, £6.83 per hour for those between 18 and 21, and £4.81 per hour for under 18s. It’s not that complicated.

            As Rosie points out, 54% of such workers at the Fringe in 2017 were paid less than the minimum wage due to them under the statutory regulations (and 48% worked in excess of the statutory working time regulations).

            Rosie suggests that Fringe workers need to unionise in order to resist this exploitation and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society needs to do more to prevent such exploitation on the part of venues and producers. I believe that the City Council also has the power act against such exploitation through its licensing function.

            Of course, such action would impact on the profits that the venues and producers reap off the backs of these exploited workers, and the City Council is no doubt reluctant to act against the goose that lays a golden egg for the city economy.

            But the continued exploitation of Fringe workers – and the complicity of both the Fringe Society and the government in that exploitation – is really indefensible.

          3. Niemand says:

            @SD outlawing unpaid internships was one of Corbyn’s policy ideas if I remember rightly. I had mixed feelings about it.

            As part of my job I actually have a hand in supervising internships in a variety of workplaces, some paid, some unpaid (I have no say in this though do sometimes ask employers to support interns financially when I know they are struggling, which is sometimes successful).

            What I would say is there is a difference between exploitation and a good unpaid internship. There are also paid internships that are far more exploitative than unpaid ones – wages are at the minimum and what the interns do is little more than be dogsbodies (sometimes justified by the fact they are paid). Whereas some unpaid interns can learn a huge amount and make the contacts that lead to good professional paid work (and the employers can be better as they know they are getting free labour). One of my jobs is to ensure that internships actually offer what they claim (and that that claim is worthwhile in the first place) and interns are treated well and with respect and support. If that does not happen (and occasionally it does) we end the internship and strike off that company from our books.

            The biggest issue for me with unpaid positions is that it often restricts it to young people who have parents well-off enough to support them financially to be able to do it (or the intern is lucky and can live at home and commute). And that is unfair. But if unpaid internships were made illegal? Lots of them would go and many interns would miss life-changing opportunities.

          4. 220601 says:

            Currently, interns are due to be paid the statutory minimum wage if they qualify as a ‘worker’; i.e. unless they are students required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course, work experience students of compulsory school age, or volunteers.

            Any intern who is paid less than the statutory minimum wage for the work they do should, like anyone else, contact ACAS for help in making a complaint to HMRC, which has the power to compel unscrupulous employers to cough up.

            If an intern does *regular* paid work for an employer (temporary or otherwise), they may further qualify as an ‘employee’, in which case they will also be eligible for other employment rights, such as paid leave and sick pay. Again, ACAS can help.

            Seeking redress for exploitation by the misuse of internships is also something a union can help with. So, my advice to interns when I worked in the voluntary sector was always to join a trade union.

          5. Niemand says:

            What I am talking about is university courses that offer sandwich degrees. The placement (year long) is voluntary however not compulsory. Interns do not need to be paid. They work four days per week.

            I am not sure what you mean by ‘due to be paid’ – you mean there is a change in legislation coming? Is this UK-wide?

          6. Niemand says:

            And to add there is nothing necessarily unscrupulous about the situation I am discussing as it is all upfront and part of any contract of employment.

            What matters to the students most of all is what the internship offers for their development and subsequently leads to, not being on minimum wage and doing something crap for a year which is totally pointless and they may as well not take the placement.

          7. 220601 says:

            As I wrote, this is the current legal situation: interns are due to be paid the statutory minimum wage if they qualify as a ‘worker’; i.e. unless they are students required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course, work experience students of compulsory school age, or volunteers, the statutory minimum wage is the very least they are legally owed (are ‘due’) for the work they do. It’s all there on the GOV.UK and ACAS websites.

            Any employer who cheats a worker on the pretext that, as an intern, that worker isn’t due to be paid the statutory minimum wage is ‘unscrupulous’ in my book.

          8. Niemand says:

            OK and as I said I am dealing with student internships that are exempt from compulsory payment.

            There is nothing unscrupulous about an employee who follows the law and is transparent about it in any advertised post. The detail on the .gov website is lacking and confusing since if a placement is compulsory then it says it need not be paid which makes little sense in fact as you would be requiring students take a placement they might find impossible to take for financial reasons (there are no sufficient loans that cover what might be required), hence failing their degree. The sticking point is ‘required’. What I suspect is that since sandwich degrees are automatically converted to non-sandwich if a student does not take a placement, so it is only ‘required’ for the sandwich award, the degree title and programme being identical otherwise.

            I have many years of experience in this. Whilst there is undoubted exploitation in some sectors, there is also great opportunity and in many instances the employer could not afford to pay but offers training, experience and opportunity for the help they need in return. And I am talking about professional situations, not menial or unskilled labour.

            In an ideal world obviously all interns would be paid, but we don’t live in a utopia and my main concern is student opportunity and I know from experience unpaid placements can offer this and lead to a much better outcome for them than if they had not done it.

          9. 220602 says:

            That’s all very well, but we’re talking here not about student internships but about employment practices at the Fringe Festival.

            And I’ll stick with my statement that any employer who claims to be offering an internship in order to avoid paying a worker the statutory minimum wage s/he’s due is ‘unscrupulous’.

  4. BSA says:

    Great article, whatever the backgrounds of the Fringe workers, and exactly the kind of writing that Bella exists for, if I may say so. .

  5. Matthew Zajac says:

    Very well said Rosie! The fundamental problem we have in the arts and the wider UK, and Scottish, culture is chronic underfunding in comparison to most European neighbours and a comfortable, salaried arts admin superstructure which is supine ie happy to lie back and do nothing about it.

    1. 220601 says:

      I’m also concerned about how that ‘supine’ government bureaucracy largely curates Scottish culture as creative industries in the service of tourism, which render festivals like the Fringe little more than money-making attractions. The fact that the support workers who service those attractions – and the diverse and often marginalised communities from which they’re drawn – see very little of the wealth those attractions generate ‘for the economy’.

  6. Alvin Vertigo says:

    “The sector leaders who are supposed to be steering us out of a pandemic …”

    One would imagine it’s rather absurd to attempt to steer out of a pandemic when it’s at its height. This idea in itself is put Tory propaganda. In this same week last year, just over 1,000 people had covid in Scotland. This week the figure was over 100,000. To stage a festival and encourage crowds to gather indoors in these circumstances is beyond the pale. And everyone involved will be judged harshly by history, when the chain of infection currently kills 100 people a week in Scotland.

    1. 220604 says:

      In Dumgal, in the week ending 1st June, 125 folk had a confirmed positive test and nobody died. We’re definitely in the recovery phase of the crisis.

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