BECTU launches probe into ‘exploitative’ You Me Bum Bum Train internships
Immersive theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train has been accused of exploiting workers after advertising for unpaid production interns.
Backstage union BECTU is investigating the legality of the “outrageous” internships, which would see successful applicants work at least two days each week for a minimum four hours each day.
The unpaid production assistant positions were advertised to students on university drama courses, with a promised letter of recommendation from the show’s directors as an incentive.
According to the job advert, the interns’ roles would include “compiling records and documentation of the sets and props”, “helping to make good the venue and take down sets” and “help support the management of the production office”. They would also be required to assist in PR tasks.
But BECTU general secretary Gerry Morrissey said that as any potential interns were not part of a training project, and would not receive any qualifications, they “should at the very least be getting the minimum wage”.
While You Me Bum Bum Train is an independent, not-for-profit company, it received a £150,000 grant from Arts Council England in 2014 to help build the show’s elaborate sets.
Seizing on this, Morrissey said: “Here we have government funds being put through the Arts Council, passed on to an organisation who simply are just exploiting people.”
He went on: “We’re doing our best, along with others, to try to make sure people coming into this industry have an opportunity to make a living there, and not be exploited. This is nothing short of outrageous.”
You Me Bum Bum Train, which charges £48.50 for a ticket and has enjoyed several sell-out runs in central London, has previously come under fire for its reliance on unpaid volunteer performers.
The show’s producers have previously said that if every volunteer were paid, they would have to charge £2,000 per ticket to break even.
Morrissey pledged to complain to the Arts Council about the unpaid internships, and continued: “The moral point is that taxpayers’ money is going to an organisation which is actually making money, charging more competitive rates for tickets, only to have [workers] be exploited.”
He added: “That cannot be right, and it’s not the picture that the Arts Council should allow to be painted of the industry.”
But You Me Bum Bum Train producers Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd insisted the show was in fact a “training project”, and that it was “not simply a show being staged for the entertainment of the ‘audience’ and the commercial gain of the producers or promoters”.
In a joint statement to The Stage, they continued: “It is wrong to compare it to that sort of show: it is a community activity, creating opportunities and experiences for hundreds of people who are not interested in being paid.”
Claiming that “nobody is making significant sums of money” from the show, the pair reiterated that volunteers were free to leave “at any time”, and worked on a timetable they choose themselves.
Hitting back at BECTU, Bond and Lloyd added: “It is clear that BECTU has done limited research into You Me Bum Bum Train. It seems they are more interested in openly criticising a constructive project so that they appear to be looking out for the interests of their paying members.”
Responding to the controversy, an Arts Council spokeswoman said entry routes into the arts needed to be “fairer and more accessible to all” and that ACE was “committed to ensuring proper and fair payment” for arts workers.
Claiming volunteers were “an important part of the arts and cultural ecology”, she continued: “However, it is vital that volunteers remain just that and do not become unpaid members of staff upon which organisations rely.
“We have published guidance for organisations about internships in the arts, as we believe that they should be paid in line with national wage regulations.”
Last year, actor and director Samuel West wrote in Equity’s magazine that unpaid work was a “virus” that would “destroy the profession”.
Toys R Us recently came under fire for calling on children’s entertainers to work for free.