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Ali FitzGibbon: Fair trade is a model theatre should adopt

Pickers at the Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling, India, are paid a fair price for their labour – more than ten times the wages of those elsewhere. Photo: Tracing Tea/Shutterstock
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There is a phrase many Irish people like me use. “In fairness”, we say, raising our hands, shrugging shoulders. With nothing more said, we point out the unarguable, the self-evident. Or we lay down the challenge: “Catch yourselves on.” In fairness, whether it’s because of pay disparity, diversity, regional gaps or profiteering, the theatre sector isn’t working for a lot of people. In fairness, we have collective responsibility for making it so and for fixing it.

I’m not suggesting that farming in the developing world and theatre in one of the world’s wealthiest nations are in any way similar, but some of the thinking behind the fair trade movement could lend a lot to this discussion.

At its core, fair trade is about achieving “a fair price linked to a viable cost of production”, but its great achievement as a movement has been to recognise success will come only if all those involved in the transaction (from the producers to governments to customers) play a part in change.

What can we learn from this? And when I say “we”, I mean the whole public, private, non-profit and creative mash that makes up the theatre world. Isolating problems to be addressed by one funding body, or a handful of our lead companies, or one profession within the sector will probably fail. Recognising the ecology we are bound into should force us to think and work in a more collegiate way. According to the World Fair Trade Organization, there are 10 principles of fair trade. Two are about child labour and the environment, which are important but maybe less pertinent to my point.

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers (in this case, theatremakers)

The unevenness of our sector’s internal economy is not adequately recognised, but we must agree how to deal with its inequality – across the whole UK. Arts Council England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have no influence outside England, and an industry that functions nationally (and internationally) requires a truly UK-wide national approach.

Our sector as a whole is disadvantaged within the wider economy and we need to secure fair consideration within national and devolved policies. For example, approaches to VAT and cultural exemption mean smaller non-profit producers pay more, not less, than commercial businesses for services. National employment policies (pensions, visas, social welfare) inadequately understand our employment practices.

2. Transparency and accountability

We must be more open about how we plan and make decisions. We must discuss failure as well as success. Accountability is too often viewed as an ‘upwards-only’ funding-based relationship with a government department at the top of the food chain and audiences at the bottom. But it travels in all directions.

3. Trade relations

Fair trade demands we “trade with concern for the well-being of small producers and individuals and not maximise profit at their expense”. It proposes we maintain long-term relationships based on solidarity, trust, mutual respect, and commitment to growth. While the plight of the emerging artist/practitioner is often discussed, we are an industry obsessed with newness. We are not so quick to acknowledge the sector’s reliance on, and responsibility for, ‘old’ expertise. Our sustainability is dependent on being concerned with how we blend new and old to our advantage.

4. Payment of a fair price

We need to pay fair prices for work. Fair trade proposes that a fair price should cover the full cost of production at a sustainable, environmentally sound and socially just level, including fair pay to the makers. It should be paid promptly and pre-finance should be available if needed. How do we interpret fair pay in relation to the cost of living or unsociable hours, being a permanent staff member or a freelance, having limited career spans? There may be criticism of administrators’ salaries, but again these statistics are not available nationally. Even acknowledging internal disparities, our sector is not evenly well paid.

If we are successfully to achieve a fair price, we need commitment throughout the transaction – funding bodies, local authorities, commercial and public venues and companies, artists and producers. Is part-funding a company or project a fair price, or is it speculative investment? If it’s the latter, then we should review how it changes our commitments. Are venue and production budgets drawn up based on the actual cost, the available budget and its attendant demands, or an industry standard that assumes part-funding? What is the role of the private sector (for example, in hospitality) that benefits? Do we need to reimagine our production model to think more cleverly about this? And how do the answers to these questions also address being fair to the audiences and communities we do this for and with?

5. Non-discrimination, gender equity and freedom of association

A fair trade organisation does not discriminate on any basis in “hiring, remuneration, access to training, promotion, termination or retirement”. Fair trade specifically supports the empowerment of women. We need to think nationally about diversity and equality and recognise its different contexts. What is appropriate and fair policy for London or Birmingham may not be appropriate elsewhere. As an example, 13% of the English population is of black, Asian or minority ethnic origin, while only 1.8% of the Northern Irish population is non-white. But the other 98.2% express three nationalities, have three official languages and experience ongoing sectarian behaviour. Understanding and addressing inequality and diversity is not about universal policies even if it is about universal principles.

6. Working conditions

Fair trade demands a safe, healthy working environment. This covers physical and emotional well-being, so it includes the right to reasonable working hours and to be free from harassment and excess stress. This does not have to reduce ambition but maybe we should be focused on long-term vision rather than burnout.

7. Capacity building

Fair trade actively builds the means to independence, developing skills and building access to new markets. If we commit to a fair ability to sustain a lifetime career, we need to empower people in our sector to be open about what they want and need, whether it’s childcare or opportunity, retirement or international collaboration. We must make provision to retrain, reskill and then re-employ our creative community as their lives evolve. We should rethink our producing and financing models to fit with what we need for the future.

8. Promoting fair trade

Fair trade is as much about raising awareness as it is about making change through collaboration. We must be vocal about our principles and move from pleas for funding to a conversation about what we expect from ourselves, our investors, artists and audiences – and what they expect in return.

Some might claim my suggestions are impractical, but what is the alternative? If we don’t do this now, how fair will it seem next year or in 20 years when many of us will still be too old or too young, too ethnic, too disabled, too regional, too female, too complicated, too political, too poor or too invisible? Does our current business model provide viable long-term careers and support growth in creativity, innovation and business?

I’m not content to blame a lack of resources for our shortcomings. I’m tired of the rhetoric of sustainability and building capacity without real action or support. This is what sustainability looks like. It may ultimately cost more money, but in fairness, does it not provide a compelling roadmap? Would it really be so hard?

Fair trade and the arts

Fairtrade Foundation fairtrade.org.uk

World Fair Trade Organization’s 10 principles of fair trade bit.ly/wfto-10principles

The business model for the creative industries is broken, Patrick Collinson in the Guardian bit.ly/edinburgh-collinson

Arts diversity: There is catching up to do, Christy Romer in Arts Professional bit.ly/artspro-diversity

Arts Council defends cost of arts administration, The Stage, September 8 bit.ly/ace-admin-costs

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