Unpaid roles – a way to get yourself out there and build experience or blatant exploitation that’s serving to devalue professionals across numerous sectors?

Whatever you’re inclined to think, either based on your own experiences as an unpaid worker, employer or just an insight into your industry, the issue of unpaid employment has reared its ugly head in both the theatre and amongst graduates embarking on careers in a wide range of industries.

Exploited student and graduate workers have spoken up and demanded change after the unacceptable influx of unpaid positions and in recent months we’ve seen an explosion in worker’s rights websites, sources to report employers and even testimonials from politicians.

The consensus is clear: Unpaid work in any way shape or form is illegal. But it’s still going ahead, especially in the performing arts.

Last week The Stage published an article centred on a new London-based fringe theatre that has guaranteed its staff, crew and performers at least the national minimum wage (currently £6.31 for those aged 21 and over). While this was encouraging news for those in the arts (and ‘exploited’ free labourers in general), many argue that it’s rather worrying that such a story has made ‘positive’ news. Is paying performers really such breaking news?

The fringe theatre, a 50 seater above Islington’s Hope and Anchor pub will showcase performances only from companies that pay their team and present original writing. The companies won’t be charged rent to use the space; instead a box office split will apply so technically, the money the company would use to pay rent is going into staff wages.

The move comes as welcome news to drama groups, musicians and performers who have become accustomed to the norm of payment in ‘beer and applause’.

Traditionally, fringe performances are usually informal groups, but within recent years there has been increasing speculation that the traditional fringe has moved to a more profitable approach. Profitable for managers, but not necessarily performers.

Whilst the issue of unpaid actors and theatre workers is wholly unacceptable, the lines are slightly blurred, perhaps leading to why so many companies have gotten away without paying their staff. ‘The what constitutes work?’ question has been posed, as has the distinction between tax law and employment law, but arguably the need to turn up to rehearsals and shows at set times is work, or at least, that is what employment law states.

There’s still a long way to go and convoluted arguments and shocking cases will likely be unearthed for some time yet, but slowly, painfully and triumphantly, the low pay/no pay debate is being challenged like never before.

As stage, studio and lighting installation specialists, this is an issue close to our hearts and we’ll be keeping our ears close to the ground as the issue of unpaid work is challenged further.

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