Opinion: Business should not be propped up by unpaid staff or any other illegal activity


Perhaps it is immoral not to pay actors and technical staff. There has been much debate about cooperatives and I think that debate is good. When the criteria for a cooperative theatre company is clear it will be excellent.

But the decision about theatre companies that operate on an employe and worker model has been made some time ago in parliment. You have to pay your workers in this country. We have a minimum wage.

It’s definately illegal not to pay your actors. If an employer is not paying at least NMW they are breaking the law. Actors and stage management are always classed as workers in employment law, because of the nature of the work they do.

Recent tribunal results support this opinion, and the chicken littles are running about be crying the death of the fringe. I find it desperate and alarmist to talk about ‘shutting down’ fringe venues

, as if they are people being executed or something. Some of these old pub venues simply are not viable businesses and can’t sustain themselves. Let them go, and viable business (like The Park in Finsbury Park) will open.

There are more theatre venues in London then there ever have been. The weaker ones will go under. They should not be propped up by unwaged actors or any other type of illegal activity.

So many shows charge far too little for their tickets, and fail to pay their staff. This means that principled, legitimate producers (who follow the law) have to compete with unwaged companies. That is unfair to the would be legit producers, and favours the dilettantes who will never be good employers.

I would also argue that the quality of the work does suffer. Fringe fails to meet its real potential because of unpaid work. The actors you see on the fringe are restricted to only those who can afford to work for free. Those who have families, who have student loans, cannot afford the fringe for long. They come and they go, unlike those privileged enough to be able to work for nothing. And usually in every Fringe show there is at least one utterly rubbish actor. Sometimes an entire chorus of them. Staying power is determined by privilege, not talent.

Imagine if the producer was paying them. Imagine if the director could choose from a wider talented pool of actors because there was enough money for a worker to to pay rent and bill. You can’t be entirely sure, but it pretty safe to say this may just improve quality a bit. Certainly the realities of running a business legally would create better producers and managements.

Look at what is happening at the Kings Head. After the ‘La Bohem/ Adam Spreadbury-Meyer debacle, actors at the Kings ahead are paid at least Equity minimum- which is more than minimum wage.

Yes some bitty theatres would close. And like old friends we would mourn their passing. A bit. It would be so sad. But theatres are not people, they are buildings. That one closes, another theatre will open. Having a long history does not alone make a theatre a good thing. Let it close. Hopefully something bigger and better appointed will replace it. And hopefully that new one will get subsidised instead of remaining some random rat infested back room theatre with poor conditions and erratic management.

Artists and workers are people. It is disgusting that actors will work like animals, unpaid until they cannot afford it and then they will fade away. But they are people and are due statutory minimums like anyone else. The illusion of opportunity will suck the next wave in, and unpaid opportunity will only favour the privileged and connected. And the disadvanteged, no matter how talented, will disproportionately fall by the wayside.

Minimum wage exists as a measure to mitigate some of this inequality. The HMRC is only just now lurching toward the creative sector with minimum wage enforcements. Soon we will be hearing about demands for back wages, production companies fined by the HMRC. Probably then will the chicken little theatres and dilettantes will rush to apply to local businesses and councils for help getting into sufficient premises.

My question is… Why don’t they start that process now? Best commercial property market in decades. Venues can say that the NMW regs require them to have bigger audiences. Because they do. Venues can say that the application of minimum wage may shut them down, because it might. They can say they want to change their policy so that all workers involved get paid, because they should.

So when I hear about a fringe theatre closing I tend to think to myself of the days I worked there years ago. I remember the packed seats. All 80 or 110 packed seats, and I think to myself ‘blessed release- we could have played to hundreds more a week’. Then I go make money acting for responsible employers.

I survived but I would have been better off legally paid, even just a little bit. I wish there had been a boycott then. I wish no one at all had come to my first fringe show after drama school on the principle of unfair pay.

It would have opened my eyes to the third world mentality applied to UK workers in the arts. And it would not have cost me a penny. My paid work arose from paid work, not the mucking about on the fringe.

I love art. I love making it. Art without remuneration does not help me meet my obligations in this world. Obligations to people.

I think businesses, especially theatre companies, need to think more about the people. Quit wasting energy complaining about how hard it will be to make your legal obligations. If you choose to be in a small building then you are killing your business. Don’t try to blame the workers who deserve paying.

If you can’t manage to pay minimum wage, you have no business managing a business. Quit whining about the lack of subsidy. You are a producer. Either figure it out, or go away and make room for someone who can.

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This entry was posted in letters and editorials, minimum wage, solutions, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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