Concerns raised for a second time over use of unpaid labour at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay


Trade union official says Underbelly’s recruitment of ‘Hogmanay ambassadors’ contravenes both Volunteer Scotland’s Code of Practice and the National Minimum Wage Act

THE USE of unpaid volunteer labour by Underbelly, the Edinburgh Fringe venue and event organiser behind Edinburgh’s Hogmanay street party, contravenes both Volunteer Scotland’s Code of Practice and the National Minimum Wage Act, it has been claimed as recruitment for ‘Hogmanay ambassadors’ at this year’s celebration gets underway.

An advertisement for volunteer ambassadors posted on the Volunteer Edinburgh website seeks volunteers prepared to work short-term – “3 months or less” – for no salary. However, expenses are offered, amounting to “up to £5 travel expenses and £5 for food.”

Underbelly won the £800,000 contract to run Edinburgh’s Hogmanay for three years in March, 2017, and was urged by trade union activists to stop using volunteer labour after it posted similar advertisements for 300 unpaid positions that required volunteers to work in exchange for travel expenses and a personalised certificate. Following the controversy,  Unique Events, which previously hosted the Hogmanay festivities, confirmed it had never used unpaid volunteers at previous New Year’s celebrations.

In September this year, Underbelly director Ed Bartlam acknowledged the validity of some prior criticism, telling the Edinburgh Reporter: “We hold our hands up and say that we didn’t get everything right last year. We could have communicated everything better but we did it with absolutely the right intentions.”

In response to the recent publication of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay 19 Volunteer Engagement Plan, Lothian MSP and former Scottish Labour leader wrote to the City of Edinburgh Council on 31 October, seeking a guarantee that no volunteers would be exploited.

READ MORE: War of words breaks out between Underbelly and union organiser over employment conditions of Fringe staff

Dugdale wrote: “As you will know, a number of concerns around last year’s Hogmanay event were raised at the time, which included the issue of volunteers working for up to 12 hours on the days leading up to – and including – Hogmanay and New Year’s Day. It was then revealed that volunteers were only receiving meal vouchers and “reasonable” travel expenses. In addition to this, it was noted that to volunteer required time to be given up to attend briefings as well as training/rehearsal sessions in the run-up to the event.

“As The City of Edinburgh Council is one of the main sponsors of the celebrations, I am therefore seeking detailed reassurances regarding what steps the Council has taken since last year’s event to ensure those who choose to volunteer at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay are not being exploited in any way. I also seek reassurance that those organising Edinburgh’s Hogmanay are adhering to any rules, codes of conduct or charters in which the City of Edinburgh Council has agreed to in relation to volunteer and workers’ rights.

“I understand that the Edinburgh Hogmanay Ambassador’s scheme was founded to give people the opportunity to experience one of the world’s most iconic New Year celebrations, and to be at the heart of the festivities. However, this programme should not be used to exploit workers and volunteers at a time of the year when the capital is bringing in vast amounts of money.”

In response, City of Edinburgh Council chief executive Andrew Kerr wrote: “To help our festivals ensure such schemes are always as successful as possible – and beneficial to all involved –  the Council introduced new guidelines for volunteering earlier this year. I have attached a copy of the guidelines for your information.

“While volunteering is undertaken on a non-contractual basis, it is important that volunteers are treated fairly and benefit from the experience.

“This programme should not be used to exploit workers and volunteers at a time of the year when the capital is bringing in vast amounts of money.” Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale

“In order to protect the volunteer and the organisation, the Council’s code of practice on the use of volunteers clearly defines what is expected of organisations who use volunteers, how the volunteers should be treated, what benefits should be available and to ensure that volunteer roles are not used to replace paid employment, including paid staff involved in industrial disputes. The code of practice has been developed in conjunction with Volunteer Edinburgh, Volunteer Scotland, the Edinburgh Festivals and the Trades Unions.

“Underbelly has embraced this new code of conduct and, as such, has enhanced its Hogmanay Ambassador scheme this winter.” 

Speaking to CommonSpace, an Underbelly spokesperson added: “As producers of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Underbelly continues its commitment to create meaningful opportunities for volunteers, and has developed the scheme, piloted in 2017-18, based on feedback from last year’s ambassadors and in collaboration with City of Edinburgh Council, Festivals Edinburgh, Volunteer Scotland and Volunteer Edinburgh.  

READ MORE: Exclusive: Underpaid, overworked and kept ignorant of their rights: the exploitation of Edinburgh Fringe workers – and the fight against it

“Alongside the event’s delivery team, the Ambassadors will help visitors from around the world experience the best possible New Year celebrations. For the volunteers, this is an opportunity to get behind-the-scenes and take part in an inclusive experience which makes them a part of a community of ambassadors for the festival.”

The statement from Underbelly stressed that their Hogmanay Ambassador Programme is “entirely separate” to those staffing requirements for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, and has been set up to allow “those who choose to volunteer” to “develop and gain experience and skills, meet new friends and help us welcome the world to Edinburgh.”

The statement continues: “No paid roles will be replaced by volunteers.  Last year as producer of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Underbelly directly employed or engaged 2,813 paid people. All staff at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay were paid the National Living Wage, regardless of age; and there were no zero hour contracts.  We expect the numbers to be similar this year.”

“Underbelly is not a charity, it is a profit-making company which shall make plenty of money over the Christmas and New Year period off the backs of unpaid workers.” Unite and Better Than Zero campaigner Bryan Simpson

Speaking to CommonSpace, Bryan Simpson of the Unite trade union and the Better Than Zero campaign – who has previously offered severe criticism of Underbelly’s practices during both Hogmanay and the Edinburgh Fringe – commented: “It looks like Underbelly has learned nothing from the turmoil they caused last year when only a fraction of the 280 unpaid Ambassadors they needed for Hogmanay 2017/18 transpired. Back then they promised they would change their ways, but they haven’t. 

“To ask workers to come in for 8.5 hours of work (including mandatory training) for only £5 in expenses is not just in complete contradiction to Volunteer Scotland’s own Code of Practice but it may be unlawful under Section 44 of the National Minimum Wage Act as Underbelly is not a charity, it is a profit-making company which shall make plenty of money over the Christmas and New Year period off the backs of unpaid workers.”

In August this year, a dispute broke out between Underbelly and Simpson – then working with the Fair Fringe campaign, which aims to secure better working conditions for Edinburgh Fringe staff – following efforts to get Underbelly to sign up to the Fair Fringe charter and pay all its staff the real Living Wage.

While Bryan Simpson argued that Underbelly were guilty of “systematic exploitation of staff”, the venue stated that accusations of unfair employment conditions were “absolutely untrue.”

Picture courtesy of Martin Robertson