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Edinburgh Fringe boss addresses row caused by ‘living wage’ comments

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Photo: Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Photo: Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society
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Edinburgh Fringe chief Shona McCarthy has sought to clarify her comments on low pay at the festival, after she was reported as saying that paying the living wage would spell the end of the Free Fringe.

The report in the Scotsman newspaper said: “McCarthy has insisted that demands for all fringe producers and venues to pay workers the living wage are unrealistic and would see the end of the Free Fringe strand of the festival.”

It sparked backlash across social media, with the leaders of the two rival free fringe organisations uniting in condemnation, pointing out that the free fringe mostly operates in pop-up spaces in year-round venues where staff are fully paid.

However, a fringe spokesman told The Stage that the Scotsman article did not represent McCarthy’s comments to its journalist.

She said: “Shona’s point was that without a positive approach to voluntary action and the conditions that support voluntary effort, the fringe itself would never have started and innovations like the Free Fringe would not exist.”

Emphasising the large number of different volunteer and professional models across the fringe’s 317 venues, she added: “Our focus is to ensure that individuals who want to work or participate at the fringe are provided with as much information as possible to make an informed choice.”

The furore followed a report by the Fair Fringe campaign that bad employment practice at C Venues had become so bad that “unless they undertake a complete overhaul, they should no longer be allowed to participate in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe”.

Some Edinburgh Fringe venues no better than sweatshops, report claims

The campaign, which started in 2017, has removed all links to supporting groups from its website but told The Stage it had received support from Unite the Union.

Its main concern is with those working or volunteering in front of house and hospitality roles. BECTU and Equity cover working conditions and practices for technical staff and performers, respectively.

Fair Fringe spokesperson Kirsty Haigh told The Stage that it had not received a response from the Fringe Society following its C-Venues report. However, it is due to address a venue managers’ meeting.

Haigh said: “The Fringe Society now needs to stop turning a blind eye to this rampant exploitation and refuse to let C Venues advertise in their programme or through their outlets.”

However, the Fringe Society told The Stage: “The society has never had a policy of banning or excluding, whether that be venues, companies or shows.

“Our approach has been to work with people to find solutions, to support and improve. We are exploring all options for ensuring that the codes of best practice are adhered to and the fringe continues to be a positive environment to visit, perform and work in.”

The scale of the response to the original news story has led McCarthy to publish a lengthy rebuttal and explanation of the Fringe Society’s point of view on volunteering and exploitation at the fringe on its website.

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