Every August Edinburgh turns into one of the biggest Festivals on earth - The Fringe.

Thousands of visitors make their way through the narrow streets of Edinburgh, each of them trying to reach the next show, just in time to see their favourite performer live on stage. These shows are prepared, advertised and performed with the help of thousands of, predominantly young, staff working at the Fringe.

Even though these staff members are the backbone of the entire festival, many allege exploitative working practices which blur the line between volunteering and working. In a survey carried out by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society in 2018, 48% claim to have worked more than 48 hours a week; and more than half received less than the minimum wage. Others worked as 'volunteers' for the duration of the Fringe.

In order to improve working conditions BECTU and the Fringe Society published a Code of Good Employment Practice, providing information about engagement of workers, hours of work/pay rates and health/safety regulations regarding employment at The Fringe.

However, critics claim this hasn't resulted in any improvement, because it is a voluntary scheme which does little to ensure that venues will actually change their practices.

What are the key differences between volunteers and workers?

A worker is an individual working under a contract in terms of which they agree to do or perform work personally. Workers' employment rights are limited but they have the right to the national minimum wage; statutory annual leave; and minimum rest breaks and periods.

  • Different rates of national minimum wage apply to workers of different ages. Deductions for accommodation (to the extent they exceed the accommodation allowance) can be made if the accommodation comes with the job (calculating minimum wage).
  • Workers must be given 11 hours of uninterrupted rest per day; 24 hours uninterrupted rest per week; and a rest break of 20 minutes when working more than six hours per day. If the nature of the event makes this impossible, compensatory rest (or compensating for the 'rest' hours worked) should be considered; or "opt-out-agreements" can be made to allow the worker to work in excess of 48 hours a week.

By contrast, volunteering is an unpaid activity in terms of which an individual does not have to turn up for work if he/she doesn't want to. Volunteers may be paid back reasonable out-of-pocket expenses.

Just because someone agrees to being called "unpaid" or a "volunteer" this does not prevent them from qualifying for the national minimum wage and statutory rest breaks if they are entitled. They are likely to be a worker if, for example, they have a contract to provide work for the employer in return for something of value (such as financial payment or benefit-in-kind beyond out-of-pocket expenses), or they would be subject to a sanction if they did not arrive at work at an agreed time.

Workbox users will find more information on the pages on Employment Status; Minimum Wage; and Rest Periods and Rest Breaks.

This blog was written by our German summer student, Henrik Meyer


Julie Keir

Practice Development Lawyer