Implications of new Minimum Wage enforcement on Arts Jobs website.
This month Arts Council England (ACE) launched the new version of their Arts Jobs recruitment site. Arts Jobs stopped advertising unpaid or profit share jobs last year following a campaign to highlight the number of these positions which failed to meet minimum wage regulations. Since then the website has carried an apology that due to concern over minimum wage violations no unpaid job would be allowed until the website was updated to prevent such abuse.
The new system, currently being piloted on the Arts Jobs website, involves posts for unpaid positions submitting additional information aimed at ascertaining whether they comply with the minimum wage regulations. Either that the organisation offering the position is allowed to employ volunteers – ie it is a charity or voluntary organisation who’s activities are aimed at the public good, or that the position is a bonafide work experience placement or casual volunteering role.
We have yet to see how effective a campaign this will prove. It will hopefully prevent larger for-profit organisations advertising for unpaid positions, which can only be a good thing. However I suspect it will prove very easy for fringe theatre – where the issue of unpaid work is most severe – to continue advertising unpaid positions. A ‘voluntary organisation’ is defined by ACE as an organisation which is not profit making and is established for charitable purposes or more general public benefits. I don’t know a single fringe theatre company that doesn’t believe itself to be a) not-for-profit and b) aimed at providing a public benefit. Those companies that haven’t registered a legal ‘not for profit’ status either as companies limited by guarantee or as charities, haven’t done so not because they are making a profit but rather because they are making so little money they can’t even afford to register with companies house and face the administration cost of accountancy and book keeping it will entail. So I suspect most fringe theatre companies would have no issue self identifying as ‘non profit making organisations established to provide a public benefit’ and so happily continue to use the site to post unpaid positions.
Yet even if the new submission process does succeed in removing all adverts for unpaid arts jobs it will have very little impact on the jobs themselves. The difficulty the arts council face underlines the difficulty minimum wage legislation poses for fringe arts as a whole. Fundamentally minimum wage legislation simply doesn’t work when it comes to the arts. When Labour introduced the legislation in 1999 it was with the aim of giving the poorest and least powerful workers a tool with which to fight for better pay as well as a preventative measure to stop them being exploited in the first place. The problem for the arts is that for the most part it’s the individual willingly exploiting themselves. They know they are not going to get paid properly and yet they’d still rather not get paid properly in the arts than be well paid in an office job.
There are two issues at stake here for fringe Theatre. First the purpose of minimum wage legislation is not to guarantee people the ability to work in a failing industry. If people voluntarily agree to work in the arts for less than minimum wage when they could get better paid, but less fulfilling jobs, in other industries, minimum wage legislation doesn’t seem like the appropriate tool to tackle the problem. The issue isn’t that people are being exploited, no one is getting rich on the back of their effort, the problem is that there simply isn’t enough money going into the Theatre industry to sustain the amount of work being produced. So in the absence of adequate levels of government subsidy to maintain the level of production the workforce are choosing to subsidise the work themselves by giving their time for below minimum wage.
So we have a simple choice: either we produce less theatre and more of us give up and go and work in an office job – which very few of us would want to see happen. Or we find a method of persuading government and private donors to give us considerably more subsidy – which seems very unlikely in the current economic climate. Or we carry on subsidising the industry ourselves with our cheap labour – which is unsustainable on a personal level if not for the industry as a whole. None seem like very palatable solutions, but at the moment it’s hard to see what the alternatives are.