Letters of the week
That’s not the spirit, Julius
Reading Julius Green’s column (Equity needs a little spirit of the fringe, August 8, page 10), readers would have been forgiven for thinking that Equity is waging war, or in his words “open season”, on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Anyone more familiar with the nuances of the low pay/no pay debates going on across the entertainment industry at the moment will have sighed at yet another ill-informed (at best) or cheap and cynical (at worst) attempt to stoke up panic and discredit the work being done by Equity to address a problem raised by our members.
The reality is that many of our members choose to work on the fringe for less than the national minimum wage for their own professional reasons, and Equity acknowledges that there is widespread support from our members for the fringe. Although we do not condone non-payment of the NMW and failing to meet other obligations – health and safety in particular – we never stop our members, and, indeed, we cannot stop our members, from taking such engagements.
I’m not entirely sure what Julius means when he writes: “A cynic might suggest that there may thus be an element of self-interest on Equity’s part in seeking a legal ruling that reinforces the actor’s status as a ‘worker’ (as opposed to, say, a self-employed creative practitioner)”, but I can only assume he’s not that familiar with UK employment law. Equity is, of course, a trade union, and we will provide legal representation to members when they believe their employment rights have been breached – that’s what unions do. However, we know that the best way to serve our members is to work with producers and venues to reach agreements that are realistic and take into account the specific challenges of the sector.
This approach means that while we have funded one employment tribunal case for our members on this issue, we’ve reached agreements with a number of fringe venues and small theatre companies, and have had positive discussions with many more who are keen to do what they can to remunerate performers. In each case we’ve been impressed by the willingness of producers and venues to engage with the union. In turn, we’ve done all we can to adapt to the needs of the fringe.
Finally, Julius suggests Equity could do with embracing the “spirit of the fringe”. I can assure readers that having a presence at the fringe is a very important part of the work of this union, which is why a group of our organisers is up there right now delivering workshops and advice sessions for stage managers and performers, free of charge. See www.equity.org.uk/news-and-events for details. If Julius has some free time, he’d be very welcome to come along and discuss low pay/no pay issues with the people who are most affected – it might make for a better future article.
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Tribunals have turned full circle
I refer to Matthew Hemley’s report, “Tribunal fees will open door to injustice, warn UK entertainment unions” (News, August 8, page 2). The entertainment unions are correct, but this is to be seen not only as a matter for outrage but also as an opportunity for the trade unions to recruit members and strengthen their position.
One reason for the decline of trade union membership, and the consequent decline in their power, has been the collapse of the UK heavy industrial base.
Another potent reason has been the introduction of inexpensive and easily accessible justice for employees and workers in the workplace by the establishment of industrial tribunals, rebranded as employment tribunals. Why would a worker want to pay union dues when he or she could access a tribunal directly, seek advice and guidance from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service or get advice free from a lawyer, who might subsequently take his or her case to a tribunal on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. I am aware that there are other reasons to belong to a trade union, but these are not always obvious to workers in the 21st century, for whom trade unions exist only in the history books.
In the early days, most of the tribunal chairmen – now called employment judges – tried to keep proceedings simple, friendly and non-legalistic. Unfortunately, there was always a tension, created by the appeal system, between the tribunals at first instance and the strangely constituted employment appeal tribunal presided over by a high court judge – later circuit judges – sitting with two lay members. The appeal tribunal was supposed only to decide points of law but, with great frequency, the lay members appeared to push the presiding judge into an examination of the facts and use his great lawyerly skill to convert what was a matter of fact into a point of law. The result has been that what set out to be a simple non-legalistic system has become, over the years, a lawyers’ paradise and an employers’ nightmare.
That fees for access should now be charged is an inevitable consequence of the way that employment tribunals have gradually metamorphosed into, in effect, employment courts. So, the worker is almost back where he or she started, before the 1970s, needing the collective support of a trade union to protect them. As I wrote above, now is a government-sent opportunity for trade unions to mount a campaign to increase membership. For every cloud there is a golden opportunity.
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Less talk, more action on mobiles
The (mis-)use of mobile phones in theatres is becoming ever-more intrusive. It is time for theatres to ignore the bleats of the freedom of choice brigade and ban use of all mobile devices the moment patrons cross the threshold of a venue.
Saturday evening’s thoughtful opening of the Acosta programme at the London Coliseum was ruined by a late-arriving patron – bad enough – who refused to stop talking into his mobile, despite a staff member’s dogged attempt to intervene. This type of bad behaviour is becoming so widespread that it will soon be too late to stamp it out. But please, someone, let’s try.
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