Changes to government support schemes are leading the theatre workforce straight towards mass redundancies. It’s as simple as that.
Much-anticipated changes to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, under which employers will be expected to contribute to be eligible to use it, just won’t work in the theatre industry.
The original CJRS meant that furloughed employees were eligible to up to 80% of their salary, which was capped at £2,500 a month.
Our members hoped, like many employers, that lockdown would be a temporary issue, but we now know that many theatres don’t think they will be able to open until much later this year and in some cases next year.
Even if the government were to continue to pay 80% of salaries, without an employer contribution, many theatres couldn’t afford to survive for much longer. The theatres we are talking to have told us that they have enough money to operate in this way until September or October.
The workforce knew what a precarious situation the industry is in. More than 750 members took part in a consultation in May on their main concern about going back to work. The top concern was: the end of the furlough scheme and how it would be handled.
Other concerns related to being forgotten by government and, troublingly, that “there will be mass redundancies with no hope of an end point where returning might be possible”.
The onus that the Treasury has placed on employers to contribute to the scheme in order to benefit from it will lead to huge numbers of people being made redundant.
Theatres already operate on tight margins and the expectation they should contribute to retain their workforce is too much
At the moment, BECTU officials are consulting with, or have been notified by, nearly 30 theatres about redundancies – and that was before these changes to the CJRS. Now that the government has changed the terms of reference for the furlough scheme, we are expecting that number to grow rapidly.
Theatres are closed and they have no money coming in. They need to be able to sell tickets for several months in advance of a show opening for their business model to work. They already operate on tight margins and the expectation they should contribute to retain their workforce is too much.
These are exceptional circumstances and the government can’t ignore the theatre industry for much longer. The lifeblood of this dynamic industry will drift away, disenchanted, and many won’t return.
We know that the government’s Cultural Renewal Taskforce has been established and BECTU has been invited to take part in the entertainment sub-group. We will continue to raise these issues as discussions take place. We are working on further collaboration with employers and a plan for what is needed to get the industry back on its feet.
But it’s clear that the first thing the government can do is to allow theatres an exemption from having to contribute to benefit from the furlough scheme – at least until they can open.
I’m aware that other industries face similar challenges and theatres, along with other parts of the creative industries, are competing to be heard. However, the simple solution is not to create a competition.
The government must recognise that some sectors will need extra support as they wait for news on how they can return to work. If changes to the furlough scheme are the top priority, then theatre workers need to be supported in a different way.