THE STAGE: Equity warns sell-out show of possible minimum wage breach

Well, well…

It looks like Equity has attracted The Stage’s attention. The stage is reporting that Equity has warned a show that it may be breaking the law using 200 performers and paying no one.

Martin Brown, Equity’s assistant general secretary for communications and membership support, commented: “We have already contacted the production to warn them that what they are doing may be in breach of the National Minimum Wage regulations. If any member of Equity is involved in this production and believes that they should have received at least the National Minimum Wage, I would encourage them to come to Equity and we will get a legal opinion.”

Speaking to The Stage, Kate Bond, one of the show’s creators, explained: “If there was enough funding for the shows, then we would pay everybody but there’s only enough funding to cover the production costs, such as hiring a venue, getting public liability insurance, paying for the props – but pretty much everything is as free as it can be to make the grant stretch far enough. “But, because there are 200 performers, we cannot even pay travel expenses, which is definitely unfair on paper.”

So it looks like the show’s creators may have a massive wage bill, and simply do not realise their responsibility to pay workers. Responsible theatre managers who pay actors at or above NMW are beginning to grumble about producers breaking the law and not paying actors. The reason is echoed by the FSB, The UK’s biggest business organisation, with over 200,000 members.  The FSB said that law-abiding employers are facing unlawful wage competition from  rogue employers, and backed a carefully targeted campaign from HMRC to end illegal pay deals.

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9 Responses to THE STAGE: Equity warns sell-out show of possible minimum wage breach

  1. Dave Eager says:

    It’s about time that these “we cannot afford to pay actors” lot are held to task but Equity needs someone involved/taking part to actually come forward to complain to Equity. Whilst this will take some courage to “stand up and be counted” I am sure that like myself other Equity members will rally in support.

  2. Eliane says:

    You Me Bum Bum Train has actually been very explicit all along the way that the entire process is voluntary. It is in all adverts looking for anyone who is interested in taking part, be it back stage or on stage. Therefore surely it is down to the people who want to get involved to be aware of this fact, and simply not get involved if they have a problem with it?

    • Hi Eliane,

      I appreciate what you are saying Eliane, but the work itself does not qualify as voluntary work. Lets take a look at this:

      Volunteers are unpaid and have no obligation to work for the organisation concerned. They receive no expenses or benefits in kind… They are not eligible for National Minimum Wage, as they are not classified as ‘workers’ under the legislation.

      In the ‘You Me Bum Bum Train’ instance the performer/workers involved enter into an agreement where they are obliged to personally perform for agreed dates. AND the performers were offered an in kind benefit of a photograph. So the voluntary exemption to NMW would certainly not apply. Surely it is down to the employers to pay their workers according to the law.

      Just because an employer calls a job voluntary does not mean that they do not have NMW obligations. The employer was simply mistaken in this case, as in many others.

      NMW is a statutory right; which means an employer cannot contract out of NMW. Even if a worker explicitly agrees to forgo NMW in an agreement or contract, the worker will still be able to claim wages through the HMRC.

      So any of those performer/workers can make a claim, and Equity is right to support them, as improving pay and conditions are the principal reason for having a union.

      Equity and the government will be providing a publication for employers to help them spot these false loopholes (volunteer/voluntary workers) later this year. Visit this posting for a very clear and unequivocal description of these exemptions. It is clear they cannot apply to actors.

      NMW is a very profound and powerful piece of legislation with far reaching implications for all actors and producers alike.


  3. Dave Eager says:

    Well explained Annie…far better than I could have done…very clear 🙂

  4. Kit Friend says:

    Totally unreasonable. You wouldn’t see any other sector where employers claimed an inability to budget properly as a reasonable excuse for not paying their staff or other costs.

  5. I agree that every professional should be paid for work and we need to clarify what is voluntary and what is classed as employment. However the unfair playing field is not just from those paying their performers less but also from heavily subsidised RFO’s who are selling work to theatre’s, venues and schools for much lower prices than those who are not. There should be an agreement realistic prices for shows depending on size – for theatre’s, festivals and schools based upon number or performers, musicians etc. If theatre’s expect to pay lower process they will continue to book companies who pay their actor/ stage management poorly or not at all. It will probably mean that there will be smaller shows and harder for people to entre the profession- as in the past when Equity cards were restricted. Musicians are also affected by this with venues booking the less experienced, students or using a mini disc to cut costs..

    • Hey there, thanks for your thoughts.

      It’s true that companies that do not pay lawful wages can undercut the prices of those who do right by their employees. This has been pointed out by the Federation of Small Business (FSB) and others.

      The more and more we talk about this the more I think the solution in this time would be a quality mark for companies that pay properly. That way audiences could choose to spend their money on ethical professional companies that pay sustainable wages.

      After all, that’s the law.


  6. Phil says:

    There certainly are instances of exploitation and unfair treatment in the theatre and these should be tackled. But it strikes me that ‘You Me Bum Bum Train’ is a wrong target. This isn’t a case of exploitation since NO ONE IS PROFITING FINANCIALLY!
    It’s not like the creators are pocketing lots of money and refusing to let the performers have their share. The way I understand it the funding this project received just about covered the technical production costs of this hugely ambitious production. The creators and the performers are in this together to create something beautiful, not to make money. So where’s the exploitation?
    I haven’t read a single report from one of the actual participants complaining that they felt exploited or cheated, and since there were 200 of them surely someone would have spoken up by now! Doesn’t this suggest that the 200 performers entered into this project with a clear understanding of the nature of the contract and under no false pretexts? I just can’t see where the devious exploitation is in all this. It’s a group of creative, ambitious people coming together to create something because they believe in it rather than for the money. Perhaps the buzz the show created will eventually attract more funding and everyone can finally be paid. This is how young companies work. Companies like Complicite and Shunt and Puchdrunk all started out this way, before they got the backing of the National etc. and could pay themselves. It would be nice if it was easier but it’s not!
    These misguided accusations against the creators of You Me Bum Bum Train make me angry, because we need the kind of impossible ambition and creativity they display in getting an insanely huge and difficult project like this off the ground…
    It’s people like this, who manage to create and mobilise against all the odds who go on to become the Simon McBurneys etc. If you prove that in actual fact the creators of this show were making a huge financial profit and sharing none of it with the performers or tricking the performers into the project by promising them things they didn’t deliver then I take all this back. Otherwise I fail to see how this is in any way exploitation or mean spirited.

    • Hi Phil,

      Great comment. I think you make some strong points.

      However, just because you have not heard any complaints from participants does not neccesarily mean that there are no complaints. It would be rare for actors to complain. On that subject I think it is safe to say ‘we’ll see.’ Because they still have time to approach Equity or the HMRC to claim the wages due to them.

      I think you are right though, no one was being misleading or devious. But the employers were nonetheless breaking the law. And they are still at risk of the consequences.

      The producers of this may not be profiting financially in the short term, but in the long term they may make their name and get future commissions based on the blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of unpaid actors. How is that right? How is this not exploitation?


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