Offstage workers are being asked to sign contracts requiring them to repay employer furlough contributions from their wages once shows resume, according to industry bodies.
The plans have been described as a “retrograde step” that could cast doubt on workers’ futures in the sector.
Furloughed workers currently receive 80% of their wages, up to £2,500, through the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme.
From August, employers who want to keep workers on furlough will have to pay national insurance and pension contributions, then 10% of wages for furloughed employees from September, rising to 20% from October.
Unions previously warned that the phasing out of the furlough scheme would lead to mass redundancies as many employers would be unable to afford the contributions.
The Stage understands that producers are considering asking backstage staff to sign contracts requiring them to repay employer furlough contributions, although it is believed they have not been formally implemented and are currently in discussion.
The repayment clauses could stipulate that the amount employers have paid towards furlough contributions is subtracted from workers’ wages when shows resume, and if workers do not return to the show they could be required to pay back the furlough contributions in full.
Association of Lighting Designers chair Johanna Town said: “We can confirm we have heard these stories and that we are very worried for our members’ futures over the next months.
“Many members rely on overtime to survive as minimum rates are so low. Having been furloughed for so long already, the lack of overtime and now having to repay their furlough money means many are thinking they will have to leave the industry to survive.”
The Stage Management Association said that as well as conversations about furlough money repayments, it is also aware of discussions about contract clauses under which which workers would be required to cease work without pay or benefits with immediate effect if they test positive for Covid-19.
Executive director Andy Rowley said he was “very concerned that the emergence of contract clauses that require often relatively low-paid artists and stage management to share the financial risk in these endeavours is a retrograde step”.
A BECTU source told The Stage: “These discussions reflect the difficult position employers and people across the industry are in, as it is still paralysed with no idea of when it will be able to make money again.
“No one is under any obligation to take this offer, but there are many people who are facing financial ruin and could literally lose their homes without access to the furlough scheme right now. They are desperate to have access to government support and also to know that they will have a job to go back to.
“Given these circumstances, it isn’t surprising that producers and theatre workers are exploring options that would not even be a last resort if the industry had been better supported throughout the pandemic.”
The source said that the industry was undergoing an “existential crisis”, warning that “clarity and the swift release of funding from the arts recovery package is needed urgently” to stop these discussions taking place.
They added: “As the clock counts down to August, when employers will be required to contribute to the furlough scheme, we are approaching a pivotal moment for the future of the workforce that can’t be overestimated.”
Equity said it had not heard of the proposals and declined to comment.
Editor’s note: This news story was amended after publication to make clear that the contracts under discussion relate to offstage workers and not performers, who are self-employed and therefore generally ineligible for the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme. 20/07/2020