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The Editor’s View: It’s time to come clean on opaque pay and fees

Matthew Kimble in La Boheme at the King’s Head Theatre, London, in September. The venue has signed up to the Equity fringe agreement on pay. Photo: Andreas Grieger
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Outside theatre, one of the sectors I find most interesting is the restaurant trade. As it’s another branch of the entertainment industry, comparisons can often be drawn directly between the way it operates and theatre’s business model.

Recently, I’ve followed two big stories with fascination. The first is the Guardian’s investigation into low pay in Michelin-starred kitchens. For those unfamiliar with the story, the newspaper revealed that some chefs working in the kitchen of Michel Roux Jr’s double Michelin-starred London restaurant Le Gavroche were being paid below minimum wage – as low as £5.50 per hour.

Clearly, there are similarities with theatre. Like the high-end restaurant trade, it is an industry in which the supply of workers can outweigh the available jobs. Just as there are more actors than roles, there are more wannabe chefs than jobs in top restaurants. Young performers and chefs take badly paid work at the beginning of their careers in the belief that they will gain experience on the job and ‘get spotted’. Then maybe one day they will become the star chef or leading actor.

But there is a key difference between the two industries. In theatre, problems with low pay are focused on the fringe (see Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s piece this week), while in the restaurant trade they are at the very top.

The theatrical equivalent of Le Gavroche underpaying its kitchen staff would be ensemble members of a major West End musical being paid less than minimum wage. Thankfully, this is pretty much unthinkable.

Why? Because the entertainment unions and trade associations such as the Society of London Theatre work together to ensure it doesn’t happen. Notably, any mention of unions has been conspicuously absent from the discussions around low pay in kitchens.

The second such story I’ve been following is the scandal of restaurants enforcing a service charge on customers’ bills and then not sharing it with staff.

Despite having gone on for a while, this story exploded late last year, engulfing such high-street chains as Cote and Pizza Express. A government investigation was launched.

So, what’s the parallel in the theatre industry with an unpopular charge added to the price of customers’ bills for a specific purpose, but whose precise use is frustratingly opaque? Restoration levy, anyone?

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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