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MP Tommy Sheppard has echoed calls by a new union-led campaign for fair wages and working conditions at the Fringe festival.

Photo of flyerers on the Royal Mile

Pressure has been increased on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society to take action to improve pay and working conditions for those employed by festival venues.

Scottish National Party MP Tommy Sheppard has called on the Society to introduce a new code of practice for employers, days after the Unite union launched a campaign to improve wages and working conditions at the festival.

Whilst venues are already encouraged to sign up to a ‘Best Practice Code’, The ‘Fair Fringe’ campaign claims attempts to respond to reports of widespread exploitation have not gone far enough, and says the Society is reluctant to get directly involved with issues between Fringe operators and their employees.

A new Charter

Launched by Unite Scotland in partnership with Fringe workers and campaign groups last week, the campaign is calling on the festival’s biggest employers, along with the Fringe Society, to sign up to a ten-point ‘Fair Hospitality Charter’.

Campaign representatives met with the Chief Executive and Operating Officer of the Fringe Society on Friday, who “made clear that they support the aims of the charter” but were “wary about telling the employers how to treat staff”, Bryan Simpson of Unite Hospitality told AP.

He continued: “The Fringe Society may not be able to tell the big Fringe employers what to do but they certainly have a huge cultural influence, which we believe they should be using to put pressure on the most exploitative employers to improve conditions and wages.”

Meanwhile, Tommy Sheppard MP, who was previously a comedy promoter and member of the Fringe Society board, issued his call for a new code of practice via The Scotsman newspaper.

“While allowing room for amateur productions and volunteering, there needs to be a much more professional approach to ensure that people working in a proper job are being paid a fair rate,” he told the paper.

“The way forward would be to have a discussion with the unions with a view to forming a code that could begin to up standards across the Fringe.”

Widespread exploitation

The Fair Fringe campaign’s ten-point Charter includes pledges to pay the living wage, offer minimum-hour contracts, and implement anti-sexual harassment policies.

“Last year we received reports of widespread use of exploitative practices by Fringe employers,” said Simpson. “We are determined not to allow this to happen again.”

The campaign warns that some Fringe workers are being classed as ‘volunteers’ to avoid paying them the correct amount, with some receiving as little as £200 for six weeks’ work.

It is particularly concerned with the “small army” of “unseen and underappreciated” workers, including venue attendants, stagehands and marketing assistants.

It calls out the use of “gruelling” rotas, warning some staff are being made to work more than 12 hours a day with insufficient breaks and days off.

Sexual harassment is “rife”, it claims, and employers “do not take their duty of care responsibilities seriously”.

A survey has been launched to collect evidence from Fringe workers on their wages and working conditions and a petition is calling for Fringe employers to sign up to the Charter.

The Campaign is also calling for politicians, campaign groups and artists to sign an open letter to Fringe employers. It is targeting the larger operators, including the Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly.

Simpson told AP: “We have had a positive response from employers at the Summerhall and the Stand Comedy Club, who we will be meeting this week to seek their support for the aims of the Charter.”

The Pleasance Theatre Trust relies on 200 volunteers for its Fringe operation every year. The volunteers receive financial subsistence and have accommodation provided.

A spokesperson said: “The Pleasance wants participants to learn, develop, put experience into practice, network and above all, have an unforgettable time. In August, we become one Festival family, many of whom then go off to work in the arts industry and arts events across the world.”

The current Code

There is already a wide-reaching Best Practice Code in place for Fringe venues, which includes points on accessibility, managing relationships with the Society and performing companies, as well as a general commitment to “comply with applicable licensing, equalities and employment and health and safety legislation”.

245 venues out of 320 involved with this year’s festival have signed up to the Code, including venues run by the big employers named by the Fair Fringe campaign.

In 2016, the Society also worked with union BECTU to develop a guide for Fringe employers that want to introduce the living wage.

“We exist to support the venues and companies who choose to be in the Fringe each year,” a representative of the Society said. “Our aim is always for those who choose to be involved in the Fringe, in whatever capacity, to have the best experience possible and to ensure a fair and positive working environment for all.”

But the Fair Fringe campaign says the living wage is “almost unheard” of at the Fringe and attempts to introduce it haven’t gone far enough. In addition, the reported long hours staff are required to work at some venues could be in breach of legal rights to rest breaks.

“Fringe workers, just like everyone else, deserve to have their rights in the workplace respected,” added Kirsty Haigh, who is leading the Fair Fringe campaign. “We need to change the culture of acceptance in the Fringe where exploitation and exhaustion are seen as standard.”

A photo of Frances Richens