Just weeks before the launch of the fourteenth Glasgow Film Festival, the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) has been accused of replacing paid roles with unpaid volunteer positions.
The Glasgow Film Theatre, a registered not-for-profit charity, that also trades under Glasgow Film and the Glasgow Film Festival, has been criticized by the Better than Zero campaign for using unpaid volunteers to replace previously paid usher roles between 2010 and 2011.
The nationwide Better than Zero campaign, launched by the Scottish Trade Union Congress in 2015 to campaign against exploitative employers, first became aware of accusations against the GFT following their successful campaign against Underbelly, who had sought to displace paid work with 280 unpaid volunteers at the 2018 Edinburgh Hogmanay event.
Speaking to The Glasgow Guardian, Better than Zero organiser Bryan Simpson explained that the campaign has decided to focus its attention on the GFT after being made aware of allegations from a number of people that the Glasgow Film Theatre transitioned from paid to unpaid usher roles.
Bryan stated: “The aim with [the focus on the GFT] is to point out that you cannot sit there, even with a Charitable number and name, and say we’re going to replace paid staff with unpaid volunteers, that’s not acceptable.”
Stressing that while the Glasgow Film Festival, which has been running since 2005, had always relied on unpaid volunteers coming in as ambassadors for events, Bryan asserted that the GFT only began using volunteers on a long-term basis over the past six or seven years, with the number of volunteers continuing to increase in the years since.
He said: “[Before the GFT transitioned] there was no such thing as an unpaid volunteer usher, as in what you would call short to medium staff that would always be on site. For one-off events it is definitely more palatable to have volunteers than for a long-term workplace, so why would you have volunteers all the time?”
The Glasgow Guardian spoke to a former worker at the GFT, who was employed there between 2007 and early 2014.
The former employee emphasised that despite the GFT's denial of replacing paid positions with volunteers, part of their role as front of house staff included ushering.
They explained: “It was front of house which would cover bar and usher. A lot of the time you’d start your shift in the bar and then you’d usher for a bit, wherever you were needed you were asked to go.
“They would advertise for bar staff and then you would become an usher later, they never advertised for that role. So I don’t know if that’s a loophole or a technicality that they’re getting away with.
“Gradually they introduced volunteers, they advertised for volunteers and it was clear that it would be a volunteer job and not paid. I very specifically remember in a staff meeting that they were telling the staff about this and we were told that the volunteers would work alongside the paid ushers and they were there to augment the staff. I asked if they were taking anyone’s jobs and we were specifically told they wouldn’t be taking anyone’s jobs, no usher jobs would disappear.
“Later on… they just got rid of paid ushers all together and just had the volunteers. Shortly after, they had a staff meeting to discuss it and Jaki McDougall [the Chief Executive of Glasgow Film who continues to occupy this role]… confirmed that there would be no more paid ushers, it would just be volunteers. And I brought up at the meeting, was this always the intention, to phase out paid ushers and she said yes. And then I said well I was specifically told at that meeting, the first one, that would not happen, so we were lied to."
The former worker stressed that although no one was forced to quit by the GFT, the decision to discontinue paid ushering had an immediate impact on the staff as the number of hours available were substantially reduced, resulting in greater competition between staff for shifts and forcing several of them to get additional part-time jobs. They believe the recruitment of volunteer ushers created a far more frustrating atmosphere to work in and suggest that there are now less people employed on front of house.
When asked whether the decision to replace the paid ushers with volunteers was a major factor in their decision to leave the job in 2014, they said that although there were other factors, the volunteer issue was central: “That was one of the first instances where I really tried to stick up for what I thought in the job and it was dismissed, and I grew really untrustworthy of management… the volunteer issue was definitely the root of all of it.”
They further stated: “It’s pretty shocking. Because [the GFT have] got public funding, you think there’s going to be more scrutiny, the way they market themselves as being an Arts Institution, you expect that sort of group to be more morally conscious of what they’re doing, how they treat their staff.”
Between April 2016 and 2017, 72 volunteers contributed 7440 hours of assistance with stewarding screenings at the GFT, averaging 103 hours per volunteer. 120 volunteers contributed 1440 voluntary hours as part of the Glasgow Film Festival while a further 40 volunteers provided 600 hours of assistance with the Glasgow Short Film Festival, resulting in a cumulative 9440 hours of volunteering. In a period where there were 196,000 admissions to the GFT, paying all volunteers the Real Living Wage at its current rate of £8.75 an hour would have only resulted in an increase of 42p to the price of admission if the GFT was unable to pay volunteers from their existing funds.
Bryan Simpson highlighted that in contrast to Underbelly, a private profit-making company who were shown to be breaching minimum wage regulations, the GFT, as a charitable body, are legally entitled to use volunteers, but argues that displacing paid staff, or undercutting their pay through the use of volunteers is inexcusable.
He said: “It doesn’t excuse it, unless you’re a charitable body that is not just registered as such but has its entire profits reinvested in the company as either a cooperative or into an actual charity. It may not be unlawful but it is morally unacceptable to replace previously paid roles with unpaid volunteers and is in contravention [of] the Volunteer Scotland Charter.”
When approached by The Glasgow Guardian, the Chief Executive of Glasgow Film, Jaki MacDougall responded with a statement: “Glasgow Film is a not-for-profit educational charity, and like many other charities, we rely upon on voluntary roles.
“The uninformed, under-researched statement from Better than Zero that ‘the roles advertised as volunteer were previously paid positions’ is incorrect. None of the positions advertised have ever been paid positions. In fact, a number of our volunteer positions over the years have become paid positions, and we now employ more staff than ever before. Glasgow Film is a real Living Wage employer with no zero hours contracts.
“We work very hard to ensure we are a fair workplace and we have absolutely nothing to hide. We attempted to contact Better than Zero a number of times, and provided direct numbers for Better than Zero to contact us to discuss, however Better than Zero were unwilling to engage in dialogue.
”While we are supportive of Better than Zero’s mission to protect people from exploitation, we are extremely disappointed that they targeted Glasgow Film with such a defamation, and chose to publish a completely false statement.”
The Better than Zero campaign have appealed to both current and former members of staff at the GFT. To get in contact with them email: [email protected]