Fair Pay at the Fringe

It’s the cost-of-living crisis. House prices are the most unaffordable they’ve been since Victorian times, foodbanks are struggling to keep with demand, rough sleeping is on the rise and 1 in every 5 Scot is living in poverty. So why do organisations at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe keep advertising for unpaid, low paid or illegal positions whilst so many are struggling? 

Let’s examine some of the main offenders: The Pleasance have advertised for positions which do not detail shift lengths, but as the below position highlights, will need to be a maximum of 6 hours a day to meet a living wage (how likely do we think that is during the fringe?)



HMRC detail that these kinds of payments, flat fees, are only suitable for certain kinds of work and are not suitable for workers who are working set hours (as they are at The Pleasance and many other venues during the festivals). These positions run the risk of working below a minimum wage and should legally be paid per hour. Like the above position, Zoo Venues are currently advertising their tech and lighting positions for set fees, but worse, with just 2 days off over the festivals. Whilst Underbelly are advertising for positions with 2 days off over the entire festival period for most of their workers as well. Again, HMRC state it is a legal requirement all jobs have a minimum of 1 full day of uninterrupted time off a week. Positions not stating the maximum working hours also means staff are at risk of working more than the legal amount of 48hrs a week. These positions are founded on illegal payment and scheduling practices.

Worse, is The Pleasance’s volunteer scheme:

Many of the volunteers are expected to work full-time, 6-days a week for 4-5 weeks, with volunteers receiving £500 for “legitimate expenses” in 2 payments during the festival. Of course, the issue with this is that according to HMRC for a position to legally be deemed a volunteer role it should meet certain standards, such as:

  • Telling them how, when and where to work
  • Not allowing someone else to perform the work
  • Giving a volunteer a set number of hours they have to work
  • Giving a volunteer a regular wage, payment or benefit for the work

All of the above apply to the volunteer positions being advertised by The Pleasance. 

Further to this, HMRC state “You should only be reimbursing volunteers’ expenses for the exact amount they are paid for the expense, not offering a flat rate” again, The Pleasance are in breach of volunteer guidance, as they pay all their volunteers the same flat rate to reimburse their expenses. The Scottish Government actually provide very useful guidance on volunteering and best practice, which emphasize flexibility – which the positions at The Pleasance do not because ultimately, these are positions which should be paid. 

One of the main issues with not paying workers, other than of course workers being out of pocket, is that they do not have the same legal support as paid employees. There are no volunteer unions, there is little a volunteer can do to get support. Last year I asked my twitter followers if they had any experiences of volunteering during the festivals at The Pleasance, many of the responses were alarming, with one stating: 

“Although the office officially shut at 7pm, the team running the press office worked on an inbox zero basis, meaning we couldn’t leave until every email in the inbox had been replied to – we often stayed much later. I would guess the average number of hours I worked per week was 75-80. Considering we were all there in a volunteering capacity, the atmosphere was brutal – I had sleepless nights over emails I had sent that hadn’t been formatted quite right… Another was made to feel awful because he took a day off with illness. 

The aspect I found most concerning was the get-out at the end, where all volunteers were expected to do manual labour taking down the sets. The volunteers were all late/teens early twenties, and had no minimal safety training and next to no supervision whilst moving heavy pieces of set around. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the Pleasance Dome, but at one point during the get out, I was part of the team moving the set from the upstairs venues down, to load onto vans. Groups of young people wearing no helmets and no steel-capped boots were dangling over the sides of the balcony to slide huge pieces of wood down to the team on the ground floor to catch, because they couldn’t physically fit them down the spiral staircase… Given most of the people doing the get-out had been working ten hour days without a day off for weeks, I felt that the level of tiredness was bound to cause an accident.”

The positions are clearly dangerous, and it is also important to note that if volunteers are doing the same jobs as people being paid then they are (you guessed it) workers who are not being paid rather than volunteers. HMRC detail that anyone involved in manual labour need specific training and equipment, again The Pleasance is in breach of employment practices. In fact, the volunteer above has highlighted working well above the legal 48hrs a week employees can work. Again, there is little volunteers can do if they are being asked to work above and beyond legal employee hours as they haven’t the same protections. 

Many argue that volunteering within the arts is important as it develops knowledge and opens doors. I have volunteered for arts organisations several times, but always with flexibility and myself as the priority. To work full-time and unpaid in physically demanding positions to “gain experience” only further discriminates who has access to gaining experience within the arts. Carers, those from working class or low-income backgrounds, people with additional access needs, anyone who cannot take time off for a significant period of time, are all unable to take on these opportunities resulting in a further barrier to accessing the arts.

These positions do not meet the basic standards of volunteering, and ultimately without the volunteers the venues could not run: this signifies that these volunteers are actually unpaid workers.

C Venues have continuously been criticised for their poor practices with volunteers. They have been booted out of two venues for their unethical working, and yet year on year return to the festivals to repeat their same offences. As one previous volunteer wrote to me last year:

“I was the 3rd person the hospital had treated THAT DAY from C Venues for injuries incurred due to unsafe working conditions.”

Volunteers talked about being asked to stay in venues over night to protect the empty buildings, working in unsafe and dangerous conditions and being expected to walk home late at night. C Venues volunteer positions again met the requirements by HMRC for paid work as The Pleasance’s do, and yet year on year despite their unethical practices Edinburgh hosts them.

What unites all the organisations listed above, other than their abysmal and illegal employment practices, is that they are guests of Edinburgh. Their venues are temporary, and ultimately, they could be denied licences by the council to sell alcohol, they could be asked for proof of ethical employment practices by their landlords (University of Edinburgh in many cases), or even boycotted by audiences, workers, and artists alike. Unfortunately, many of these organisations have received forms of support from the Fringe Society over the years, such as C Venues receiving funding to support artists from marginalised backgrounds to attend the festival (whilst still maintaining their illegal and unethical volunteer programme), or The Pleasance receiving support to give staff mental health support training (whilst, again you guessed it, maintaining their illegal working practices). Who is holding these organisations that take up so much space in the city to account, who is ensuring that the workers at the festivals are being cared for? Because at the moment, there is no one doing that work. 

Recently, the umbrella organisation Edinburgh Festivals commissioned a report on the impacts of the festivals more broadly. It predominantly focussed on perceptions of the festivals, and the positive economic impacts of the festivals. All of which should be celebrated, however it is important to note, that what is good economically is so often bad environmentally and socially. What is desperately needed is a social and environmental study which engages with the complex structures and stakeholders at the festivals. Even within the Fringe Society’s own research, an estimate 1/3 of all paid workers (est. 2000 people) earned less than a living wage in 2022, and yet the recent report by the Edinburgh Festivals praises job creation. There are clear tensions that need explored to really understand the depth and breadth of impacts, the good the bad and the ugly, of the festivals.

It astonishes me that within the arts we are unwilling to engage with the bad and the ugly practices in meaningful ways, always pointing towards the ‘good’. What happens on stages across Edinburgh during August is often the sharing of stories exploring exploitation, marginalisation, and unequal power dynamics. And yet, we do not apply the same lens to what is happening off stage. In a time of financial crisis and hardship for millions, the arts needs to demand better, now more than ever. 


Further Information:

If you believe you are owed money from being underpaid (due to set fees not equalling minimum wage) or have worked as a volunteer but believe your position should have been paid, you can contact HMRC here: https://checkyourpay.campaign.gov.uk/

If you are concerned about positions and would like further advice, you can join a union:

For front of house/bar/hospitality workers: https://iww.org.uk/join/ for as little as £1/month, for others working in the festivals https://bectu.org.uk/ for around £16/month

If you have volunteered during the festivals and want to share your negative experiences, you can contact volunteer partner Volunteer Edinburgh here: https://www.volunteeredinburgh.org.uk/contact-us/ 



Comments (16)

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  1. Matt Quinn says:

    Whilst I agree with the main thrust of what you’re saying Rosie… An individual is likely to have a ‘contract of service’ and so be an employee if:

    • The organisation can tell them what work to do, when, how and where to do it. – i.e. you’ve volunteered to assist the projectionist at a Cinema but are ‘ordered’ to sell ice cream or mop the toilets.

    • The individual has to do their work – i.e they cannot send someone else to do it

    • The individual has a contract and has to work a set number of hours – I’ve heard of many instances where volunteers are ‘disciplined’ for not meeting their ‘contractual obligations’!

    • The individual receives a regular wage or salary – or is being paid on the sly.

    …The little word “not” is missing from the draft of the above article I’m reading.

    That minor point aside; abuse of the callow and desperate is and has been an endemic problem within the creative industries for decades now; and I’m afraid the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe has (when considered as a monolith; which of course it isn’t really) long been among the last places on earth where fair treatment might be found.

    This speaks of its essentially elitist/classist/exclusive nature of the whole thing… the superior chattering classes are at play and in their benevolence allow the little people to participate. – They in turn are supposed to be grateful for the exposure and experience; which will (in all probability) take them absolutely nowhere, as staff jobs are invariably ‘reserved occupations’.

    It’s abuse… pure and simple.

    Further; it undermines the industrial nature of the creative industries.

    The particular example given here clearly required the services of skilled, properly equipped riggers. – But some vacuous stuffed shirt with nothing but a ‘degree’ in yah-yah-ism will have decided otherwise. – Why pay skilled people when there are gullible/desperate plebs to hand? Perhaps they might (to cover their own backs) get someone with relevant qualifications to prostitute themselves as ‘supervisor’? Or more usually not!

    The lack of respect for these challenging and tough roles is sickening.

    What’s particularly notable here is that the Yah-Yahs in charge of these places and events either do not understand or do not care about the complexities of these roles; they only require the jobs to be done at a trivial, superficial level. – Mainly because their own experience (if they have any at all) does tend to be trivial and superficial. – Profit and exclusivity are the driving forces here. Chattering-class delusions are what the yardsticks are made from. – Incompetence married to dishonesty.

    This sort of practice undermines all of those who have gone through Scotland’s (now sadly denuded) FE system to qualify to work in the Creative Industries, particularly in technical and support roles… in fact these days even those who have achieved degree-level qualification can expect to be treated like dirt.

    But it’s not just the Pleasance or any other Edinburgh venue where this sort of thing goes on…

    I don’t know whether to pity or scorn the perennial fools of this world who escape their dull ‘Dilbertesque’ day jobs to form the entire compliment of ‘operational staff’ and performers at various places and events; which are run for the benefit of one or two self-aggrandised (and otherwise unemployable) ‘CEO’ types, on well-sprung salaries; paid for out of donations and box-office takings.

    I’ve had the frequent (and unavoidable) misfortune to sit opposite such characters as they pontificate on things they don’t (or only fractionally) understand; I’ve learned to just smile sweetly and nod. There’s no point in trying to put these idiots right; they have the internet at their back. – I don’t really blame them for LARPing around of course; kidding themselves on etc. But I do have a very dim view of the individuals making coin and living lovely middle-class lives at the expense of these wannabes – and the skilled people whose jobs are being undermined to the point of elimination.

    The venues themselves often worry me too… evidence of shoddy work practice is common; and questions to be asked of the regulatory authorities that often have large books to throw and tons of bricks to drop on places that actually are well-run by competent people.

    Simmered down, it becomes a broth of (often grant-funded) corruption; frequently something much worse.

    For example…

    My daughter is a 1st-class honours Graduate of Edinburgh College of Art – Performance Costume. As her mother was a Seamstress in a former life and I’ve spent all of my working life in TV production; it was hardly surprising she’d gravitate in that direction. Pleased with and proud of her we are! But still; intimately-acquainted with the ‘feast and famine’ nature of working in the creative industries, we were just a little anxious for her.

    In her graduating year she ‘took up an opportunity’ to ‘work’ on a ‘Fringe’ show put on by a particular individual who is just shy of a year older than me. – An old man with a bizarre name who is every inch the cliché Act-tawr… a slightly distanced relation of ‘one of the greats’. – He’s ponced around for decades off the back of that name.

    Think; what was ‘Ronald Villiers’ modelling himself on? – and you start to get the picture (almost literally).

    In fact, I’ll call him ‘Ronald’ from here on in…

    So… there is a ‘Cracker’ (as in of the whip) running the team for him of course; some gushy posh airhead (just past her ‘sell-by’ date, I’m told) all ‘Ronald this and Ronald that’. The work schedule to be is crippling; questions of pay are brushed aside. – Being from a working creative family my daughter knew better than to swallow the ‘work for exposure’ line…

    Picture the scene then; a gaggle of pretty-young costume girls are gathered on the stage pondering the rubbish being spouted by the aforementioned airhead, when up rocks Ronald, all shiny round head, shirt buttoned only to the navel and ‘chest wig’ out for… well god-knows why he had his chest wig out. Saturday night Fervour?

    – Some of the gaggle giggle while others glare in revulsion. – The man’s not just a walking talking cliché, but a creepy one at that!

    On arriving home my daughter emails the airhead, to (politely and diplomatically) tell her that she won’t be ‘taking the opportunity any further’. – The following day my office phone starts ringing. Rather than give out the house number, I’d told my daughter to use it for work purposes. It’s the number of a wee modest production company I happen to run.

    There were about half-a-dozen calls all in. The first three got an email response (the message being passed to her) wherein my daughter reiterated her disinterest. The next two got the ‘hard sell’ from the airhead… what a great opportunity she was passing up. – The final call I happened to take; actually made a point of taking. – Because my daughter was getting sick of it!

    – It seemed ‘creepy Ronald’ was ‘personally disappointed’ that my daughter wasn’t keen on joining his gaggle!

    I closed the issue down by pointing out that not only was I the owner of the television production company she was calling; but the girl’s father… a year younger than ‘Ronald’ and – as a ‘graduate’ of the Red Road (the real one!) and a former Glasgow Policeman; I’d be delighted to ‘discuss’ this dirty old man’s personal interest in my child with him on a one-to-one basis!

    – The last we heard from them, of course.

    That tale is almost comedy and would be funny were it not from real life.

    There were a few other brushes in the following months with exploitative idiots, non-payers/slow payers… the old routine. The following year my daughter signed up for Teacher Training and hasn’t looked back. I hear that others from her year haven’t fared so well. …Working 60+ hour weeks in London for less than £40K a year isn’t what these people did their 4 years for. That, or working ‘under the brush’ in a dodgy (employs 10 people, yet isn’t VAT registered etc.) workshop repairing stuffed toys for £8 per hour.

    …My point is that abuse of both workers and volunteers is common to the point of being expected. That profiteers seek to exploit people at ‘big festivals’ like Edinburgh should come as absolutely no surprise.

    I don’t dispute for a moment your particular position with respect to the Pleasance or C venues. – The Zoo Venues ‘opportunity’ is a lousy one for self-employed Freelancers; and as such not ‘illegal’. – They won’t get skilled and properly-qualified people for that money, but then they’re not asking for them! – I make their rate of pay for ‘Technicians’ to be about £9.46 per hour – serves them right if they set the place alight!

    But as a contractor you either take or reject the rate offered.

    “Many argue that volunteering within the arts is important as it develops knowledge and opens doors. ”

    The rest of your paragraph Rosie, stands no dispute… but ‘opens doors’ for what exactly though?

    Staff jobs too-often go to the well-connected ‘Milngavie Mafia’ types rather than qualified people. In fact; its a feature of the injelitant ‘rote management’ mentality that the truly competent are feared. – The ‘Ronalds’ of this world; well they range from the pitiful 70s throwback I described to the really dangerous and predatory. Who (be they male or female) wants a job that has to be gained on their back or their knees? And why should/does the world tolerate that at all?

    “What happens on stages across Edinburgh during August is often the sharing of stories exploring exploitation, marginalisation, and unequal power dynamics. And yet, we do not apply the same lens to what is happening off stage.”

    It’s called tokenism… virtue signalling. A 20th/21st century iteration of the mentalities that brought us the likes of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help tome of 1859. ‘They’ don’t eliminate these things because they are a lucrative source of income for the otherwise-unemployable members of the chattering classes. The same goes for poverty itself; which is a key component of this system of inequalities and exploitation.

    I could cite numerous other examples of this sort of thing; exploitation and marginalisation are an industry in their own right!

    “What is desperately needed is a social and environmental study which engages with the complex structures and stakeholders at the festivals.”

    The trouble with those is that they become exercises in self-justification on the part of the exploitive. They become about generating ‘tail end’ statistics with which to wag the dog of function. – Who exactly is there that might honestly engage with the people of Edinburgh – the average citizen that is – and its surrounding areas; and the grass-roots members of the Creative Industries?

    – Who are they going to give the grant to, to conduct such a study?

    Of course ‘they’ (whoever they are) are not applying the same lens to what goes on off-stage at the likes of the Edinburgh Festivals! Why on earth would they?

    1. Derek Thomson says:

      Just wondering if the “gaggle of pretty-young costume girls” had skirts up their backsides and their earthas oot? Maybe that’s what was getting “Ronald” all hot and bothered.

      1. Matt Quinn says:

        You do seem, Derek, to have a propensity to ‘find acceptable’ and defend, behaviour, on the part of men which is now and always was unacceptable; i.e. lechery. – and, by implication, the corruption that potentially goes with it.

        …Disingenuous too; for in the example you obliquely cite, the young woman was manipulating the situation to her own (equally corrupt and in fact unlawful) ends. – Whereas here the young ladies here had simply been sucked into the orbit of grotesque people that sought to exploit them. I’m inclined to dismiss the ridiculous little man and his ‘assistant’ as a sort of pound-shop Epstein & Maxwell; and can only hope neither of them gained enough traction to damage any of the callow young women in question.

        Rhetorically; one might reasonably wonder exactly why you seek to go in to bat for the grotesque and corrupt?

        1. Derek Thomson says:

          Please show me where I’m “defending” or “finding acceptable” the traits in men that seem to be of such great interest to you Matt. You seem to have a morbid fascination with them is all I’m saying.

          1. Matt Quinn says:

            Did you know, Derek, that one of the first things a young probationary Constable is taught about is ‘deflection and projection? – A big boy did it and ran away; and it’s all the fault of the Police that the jails are full, etc… That drunk driver who has lost his job would still be in work had the Polis not pulled him over.

            Factually – In your previous response here you sought to justify (in effect defend) the behaviour of a lecherous old man; for clarity it matters not why he behaved like that – that he did, and was enabled and assisted in his attempts at doing so, is enough to take exception.

            In the example you obliquely cite, you (in a response to a previous post) sought to censure me for highlighting how an individual had deliberately manipulated certain (weak minded) men who were clearly open to a form of kompromat. – In that case both parties were absolutely in the wrong; and the outcome was the waste of public funds. – You did that because you had no cogent counter to the points I was otherwise making; you did that by way of a puerile attempt to ‘draw the heat’ away from the subject.

            In both cases it is clearly evidenced that you find these behaviours ‘acceptable’; it is obviously the fact that attention is being drawn to them you object to. …It’s ‘OK’ to con public money out of hormonal old men, it’s ‘OK’ to be a hormonal old man and allow yourself to be so influenced; it’s OK to lech at young girls a third of your own age.

            I have no ‘morbid fascination’ as you so deflectively frame it; merely the natural disgust that any right-thinking person ought to have. It’s interesting though that you take exception to a father being infuriated at his daughter being subjected to such treatment by such a ridiculous grotesque; though, again for clarity I take exception at anyone being subjected to such a thing.

            No morbid fascination at all – I do however stand against corruption and its causes; and in particular that which is driven by any form of sexual and/or physical abuse. It is notable that sexual misconduct (which is what both incidents amount to) was once a ‘normalised’ thing; and it would appear there are still some circles that would like it to be so again.

            In the wider context… steering closer to the original post… I object to the endemic corruption that allows callow (mostly young) people to be abused and manipulated in this way. – The businesses (and they ARE businesses!) behind this sort of thing are either not commercially viable or are profiteering; but in either case are undermining work in the creative industries. – I object to the corrupted officials that fail or refuse to protect the public and workers; and I most certainly object to the classism that goes along with all this.

          2. Derek Thomson says:

            That’s twice I’ve “obliquely cited.” Crikey, who knew? Havers Matt, complete havers. Sophistry, casuistry, check. “All Greeks are mortals and all humans are mortal, therefore….” check.

          3. Matt Quinn says:

            Derek… disingenuously chewing on a load of old Google mince doesn’t change anything of fact. As usual, you have no cogent counter to what has been put to you and simply carry on with the old D&P. Your pretentious bleather is what the lawyers call ‘lacking in specification et seperatim irrelevant’, and the dissection of your own words remains unassailed.

          4. Derek Thomson says:

            Aye, ah know. Terrible, in’t it? The dissection of my words remaining unassailed is something that I pride myself on.

          5. Matt Quinn says:

            It’s a pity you haven’t something more worthwhile to take pride in Derek; such as the ability to make a cogent, relevant counter to points you feel the need to disagree with.

          6. Derek Thomson says:

            Aye, whatevs Matt.

          7. Matt Quinn says:

            Indeed; that seems to be your usual conclusion.

    2. Derek Thomson says:

      Well, twice, but if that’s usual, fair enough. You’re really wearing Matt, that’s the problem for me. If you feel the need to have the last word, have it then.

      1. Matt Quinn says:

        …And you’re really Trolling Derek. You have nothing to say that contributes to any sort of debate – which is indeed wearing; and really ought to stick to saying just that.

  2. Magog says:

    Driving a sweeping brush and punting tickets are not arts. Should someone wish to perform such tasks there is no shortage of contractual vacancies outwith the festival. I would imagine that the festival organisations are taking full advantage of the thrill of it all re. rather gullible young people – more glamorous than berry-picking during the Uni. hols. No doubt the artists benefit from lower venue hire costs.

  3. Dr. James Ellison says:

    Where are the Health and Safety Executive in this jungle of “exploitation, marginalisation, and unequal power dynamics”. They should be asked by Edinburgh City Council and Edinburgh University to apply a critical eye over what is happening off stage.

    1. Matt Quinn says:

      I’m surprised that you might think that these organisations operate as we might otherwise reasonably expect them to, James.

      – Money and the allure of being allowed to pose as ‘part of the scene’ turn many an eye blind. As I suggested above; regulatory authorities that often have large books to throw at settings which are actually well-run by competent people, are often conspicuous by their absence. – And a few comps and selfies go a long long way; a bit of virtue-signalling in the press even further.

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