Alex McDonald

Alex McDonald

Festival of exploitation

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The Edinburgh Festival and Fringe is drawing both enormous wealth and unprecedented criticism for its exploitative nature. Festival volunteer worker Alex McDonald argues socialist must take the volunteer labour economy seriously in the bid to re-politicise the workplace.

The Edinburgh Festival and its now rather misnamed ‘Fringe’ is again upon us. The once alternative partner to the official festival now adds some £200 million to the Scottish economy per year.

This huge enterprise has helped to drive fresh rounds of economic exploitation in the capital and beyond and, unsurprisingly, this has created new forms of resistance.

In her comments in February this year in response to the Fair Fringe campaign, which has challenged low pay, poor conditions and the widespread expectation for volunteer labour among Fringe enterprises, Edinburgh Fringe Chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “It is so aggressive and is about vilifying individual operators without actually understanding the whole landscape and sitting down and having a conversation with them. We’re not talking about evil megalomaniacs here. We’re talking about hard-working cultural practitioners. It’s about trying to work with people to understand their problems and challenges.”

Workers demanding pay, the fundamental basis for the working relationship under capitalism, is now “aggressive” and about “vilifying” bosses.

McCarthy’s argument against a living wage for Fringe workers echoes the arguments once used against the minimum wage; that workers rights and legally enforceable standards would hit small and family firms the hardest and that the cost would be job destruction. At its core this is class politics, reflecting the different interests of social classes rather than different ideas about how to generate culture or service the economy.

At the same time, claims by McCarthy that demands for wages could enforce a “one-size-fits-all agenda” on cultural events that threatens “diversity” relate to a wider phenomenon of ‘woke’ attacks on the left, where class justice and social inclusion are presented as opposites.

These comments are not simply her opinion but the interests of those she represents. She speaks for the big businesses that profit from the festival. She does not represent the performers, workers or paying public.

Unpaid internships are seen as exploitative to many after years of whistle-blowers and campaigners highlighting the importance of this form of work to the modern economy.

What is the difference between internships and a similarly unpaid position at an arts festival? Volunteer Scotland estimated the value of volunteer work at £2.26 billion to the Scottish economy based on the 2016 census. With an increasing share of this going to the cultural economy, it is time to understand this form of exploitation.

‘Volunteer opportunities’ are often advertised as an excellent way ‘into’ the arts industry. Most of today’s youth have to volunteer for arts organisations long before they would ever be considered for a paid position. I can attest to the difficulty in achieving employment without prior unpaid experience within this sector.

Many of us have done volunteer work before, possibly at arts festivals, and a received wisdom, usually from a bygone period of the labour market and labour relations, goes along the lines of ‘it’s a part of growing up’ and that ‘it’s not a big deal.’

Socialists must understand and insist that this is not a part of growing up any more and is in fact an important facet of modern labour exploitation. We must also view resistance to this exploitation as a moment in the workers’ rights movement here in Scotland.

The Fringe is just an annual, amplified example of the issues surrounding the volunteer sector within the arts. Every major Scottish festival relies on volunteers. Celtic Connections, the Glasgow and Edinburgh Film Festivals, Hidden Door Festival, Sonica, Edinburgh and Glasgow Comic Cons; all of these events maintain a significant volunteer workforce. The Fringe receives the most criticism because it takes existing problems and stretches them throughout a full month while the world is watching.

Volunteering differs depending on organisation but most festivals deploy the same roles. Front of house (FOH) takes the brunt of the action with a majority of volunteers likely taking on this form of work. The FOH description varies depending on the festival but it can range from selling tickets at box office to tearing ticket stubs. The visual art festivals can lump invigilation of exhibits or instillation in with FOH. Many volunteer run galleries offer these positions on a permanent basis.

There is typically a social media-centric job offered at festivals with work involving contributions to the all-important PR and marketing of projects in a very competitive environment. During Fringe time volunteers can even be expected to write reviews on top of this. Roles such as these can be bracketed with working for ‘exposure’ in the journalism market. Technical opportunities have increased recently but these positions usually only exist in the smaller festivals. The bigger an event the more likely they will have their own paid technicians. This means that smaller shows, be it theatre or film festivals offer these positions to volunteers.


Of course, volunteers are required to do the same work as is paid elsewhere. Given the size of the Fringe this is where a majority of the unpaid technical roles emerge, they may offer ‘accommodation’ or flat monthly rates that can fall far below living wage. The artist or media liaison is a fairly new role in my personal experience. Inverse to tech, the larger the festival the more likely they are to delegate media representatives to volunteers.

This is the most responsibility I have personally seen whilst unpaid. Being the first point of contact for the public feels natural in FOH, but being at the beck and call of important guests never feels like anything less than a job. Which brings us to one of the paradoxes of volunteering – the strange system of barter and token-payment.

An argument is often supplied that the easy tasks undertaken by volunteers don’t require payment.

Yet inducements are deployed including free entry to shows and free alcoholic drinks. These organisations cannot have it all ways. A volunteer role cannot be so menial that it requires no payment at all, so desirable that it requires payment-in-kind, and so necessary that – as McCarthy might have it – its removal would mean the end of the festival.

As the Fringe intensifies, and typically paid positions such as artist liaisons and venue technicians are instead paid in ‘perks’ it diminishes the effort of the worker at the same time it takes advantage of them.

As a volunteer you do not have a contract and therefore you do not have the same rights as a worker. As such volunteers can be asked to do shifts ranging from an hour to as many as 12 in some cases. Smaller events need more time from less people, whereas large events may divide small shifts up among hundreds of people. There’s an overlap here between volunteering and conditions in the service sector that campaigns like Better Than Zero are currently combating. From short notice rotas and shift calls, to unpredictable working patterns and being excluded from shifts with no notice.

An enduring memory of volunteer work is how shocked a number of new volunteers were at possible shift lengths. FOH workers usually have it easiest as the start and end times of events make for a strict shift. Tech roles are unpredictable, I’ve found myself volunteering behind a tech desk at a film festival for nine hours – something which can only be understood from the vantage point of someone very young and desperate for experience, as I was then.

Unlike retail or hospitality work, there’s often a face to the brand you would be letting down by walking away. In my case the festival director was friendly and I felt like I would let them down. I was too naive to consider possible exploitation. If no one else was available to split my nine hours with then I should have at least been compensated with more than free films and a pint of beer. I later discovered others at the festival were being ‘compensated’ while I was slaving away for free Tennents – a return to the days when workers were often part-paid in intoxicating substances; gin in the classic British cases.

Unlike zero hours workers volunteers have no wage to rely on and can (in theory) walk away at any moment. Etiquette and the desire to accumulate relationships and experience for future remunerated labour is enough to keep most volunteers in check. However, some festivals and companies have also begun demanding volunteers pay deposits to dissuade them from leaving their shifts. Workers paying to work – the bizarre outcome of the new volunteer economy.

Why would any organisation pay someone experienced when there are hundreds of people willing to work for experience like I was? This opens up a bigger question about the impact of the volunteer workforce and its potential to lower pay for the workers in the arts sector. For now automation won’t take your jobs; volunteers hungry for experience might.

A tragic dynamic of the volunteer economy, and the wage labour system of which it is a corollary, is the suppression of true voluntary cultural engagement. Volunteering and independent cultural enterprise should be part of society. Unfortunately it is hemmed-in by the reality of the wage labour system and the unequal distribution of wealth.

There is resistance to the spread of the volunteer economy. Around the time of McCarthy’s comments C Venues (one of the biggest producers of shows at the Fringe) lost access to Adam House on Chambers Street which was its main venue for almost two decades. The awareness raised by campaigns like Fair Fringe demonstrate that change is possible.

These campaigns help to re-politicise the workplace. This is no longer a ‘part of growing up’ as McCarthy’s comments show, it is class politics. Volunteering should not be acceptable in any business that makes any profit. And so long as workers’ campaigns like Fair Fringe and Better Than Zero continue their “aggressive” threat to “diversity” we may one day soon see an arts sector that can provide a living.

Pictures: Fabio Wanderley, Laura Suarez

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