On the third day of my Fringe internship, I quietly put my pass and keys in the drawer, left the building and sent a short email saying that I wasn’t coming back. I was working long hours photocopying press cuttings with virtually no breaks, and only free tickets for shows I had no time to go to as my pay. At that time I thought that I had had a bad experience, but a few chats and articles showed me that I had seen just the tip of the iceberg of the Fringe workplace.
The Fringe, which most of us see from the perspective of the open-armed, vibrant welcome it gives tourists, hides an array of exploitation, poor working conditions and harassment. Unite Hospitality received reports of “widespread use of exploitative practices by Fringe employers including being paid £10 per 1000 leaflets, working 10 hours without a break and not being paid for work carried out.”
The Fair Fringe Campaign encourages employers to sign up to basic entitlements for their workers. Many workers are paid sums like £200 for the entire Fringe or are provided with accommodation which means that they are essentially trapped, essentially facing homelessness if they quit. Rest breaks (during and between shifts) also need to be introduced. In the job that replaced my fringe internship, I have shifts that finish at 11pm and then I start back at 8:30 am the next day. There are other conditions such as an anti-sexual harassment policy and a minimum-hour policy are also needed.
A common response on the part of employers is “we can’t afford such conditions.” Well, then you can’t afford to run your business.
After notifying Health and Safety about the torn out sockets, blocked fire exits and mouldy fridges I encountered in one job I was stunned by the lack of a response. My colleagues removed my rose-tinted glasses by saying that the council was well aware that this was happening. Whilst I had been taking on summer jobs, they had been working full-time in hotels and stores – many of them well-known but which I will avoid naming for obvious reasons – and made it clear that this was happening across the city. I felt like a whistle-blower in a room of people with their fingers in their ears. The problem was not a couple of bad apples, but a wider attitude of nonchalance towards worker exploitation.
So if the government is aware that all of this is happening, why are they sitting still? I can’t speak to the wider prevalence of worker exploitation, but in the case of the Fringe think that it comes down to money and reputation. As one customer told me today, her face shining: “I love the festival, everyone is always so happy.” There is an aim for business and landowners to sustain this image of the Fringe as a holly-jolly land of umpa lumpas at the cost of predominantly young people who are trying to get some kind of experience and make a dent in the extortionate cost of living in Edinburgh during the festival.
Many employers create an environment where excessive workload and horrific working conditions are normalised. Don’t let them be.
Please sign the petition for employers to sign up to the Fair Fringe Charter. https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/fringe-employers-sign-up-to-the-fair-hospitality-charter