Boomtown staff’s ‘traumatic’ weekend reveals the darkest side of the gig economy

Boomtown festival
John McEvoy

The story that follows reveals one of the darkest sides of the gig economy. Several subcontracted bar staff at Boomtown Fair, a music festival held near Winchester, spoke to The Canary about their ‘traumatic’ experience at this year’s event.

The staff, who have been kept anonymous, claim they were “treated like cattle”, racially profiled, intimidated, and abused. Though not officially hired by Boomtown Fair, they were subcontracted by three employment agencies contracted by the festival: Freemans Event Partners, Mint Staffing Solutions, and Harrison Lee Recruitment.

A coming storm

News of bad weather foreshadowed the weekend’s events. Before tents were pitched, some of those that were arriving to the festival site were told that work was no longer available. Social media became a site of staff searching frantically for other shifts.

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Others were told that work would begin later than agreed. One staff member told The Canary:

The problems started before the actual festival began. My friend and I had booked… to work from Wednesday to Sunday so we could work as many hours as possible. This was all confirmed and so we booked our transport to Boomtown (£64.40 non-refundable tickets) to arrive Wednesday afternoon as that’s when we confirmed that we would be arriving on site. The day before I received a text… from Mint saying that we would no longer be able to gain access to the site any earlier than Thursday evening.

By chance, they had a friend living nearby to put them up for the night.

Passports taken

Upon arrival, workers were asked to hand over their identification (including passports) and sign a ‘contract’. If they didn’t abide by the rules, claimed the ‘contract’, they would be made to pay the full price of a festival ticket.

Yet before long, the rules began to cause concern. Workers were told that they wouldn’t be camping on the festival grounds but in a ‘holding site’ some distance away. Nobody was allowed to leave unless for work, and the ‘holding site’ was manned by 24-hour security.

One worker told The Canary:

When I first arrived, they took our IDs and had us sign some kind of ‘contract’ that… said we had to work one shift each day of the festival or we would have to pay the full price of a ticket for the festival. [The Canary has seen a copy of this document].

Then we were told we had to be escorted everywhere by a member of their senior staff and we were not allowed to go outside of our allocated campsite, which was fenced off with two round the clock security guards at the only exit.

Instantly disappointed

The situation was understandably frustrating: one of the main attractions of festival work is seeing at least some of the festival itself. It also gave the employment companies undue power over their employees’ lives: along with their identifications, their freedom of movement had been removed. One worker said:

I was working the bar as a way to get into the festival, to do a few shifts and party in my free time. So when I arrived and learned we’d be escorted on and off site I was instantly disappointed.

Another said:

They took my driver’s licence. I have a baby face so this meant I was unable to buy fags for the rest of the time. I asked for my ID back and they said I had to wait until the end of the festival and if I didn’t work I wouldn’t get it back…

I went to leave the campsite… and was told by security you can’t leave that area unless you are going to work with the managers.

A third worker added:

It was my passport [that they took off me]. It wasn’t until my friend pointed it out as especially odd that I began to feel even weirder about [the situation].

Nearly two weeks after Boomtown had ended, one aggrieved worker posted on 27 August that their passport had still not been returned:

I’m being told that my passport is being detained in Salford… I would like my passport returned to me via mail, as I never consented for it to be confiscated and it is illegal to do so and not return it.

The internet is littered with similar complaints. Entitled “If you enjoy not having your basic human needs met, sign up!”, a review for Mint Staffing Solutions on Indeed fumed:

Terrible company. The management don’t care about you at all. Not allowed to leave campsite when not working… Took our passports off us when signing in, even though we’d already signed an employment agreement contract (sketchy).

‘We are simply cattle to them’

Once in the ‘holding site’, the contracted staff were told that there was no official work timetable. They would have to present themselves each morning in a designated area in the ‘holding site’, and hope to be called for work sooner rather than later. Some workers waited for hours without any sign of work – time that wasn’t paid. One worker recounted:

Nobody was given allocated shifts at any point, we were told we had to turn up at the management tent and wait until a shift was available. This meant that many people were waiting all day just sitting in the field, unpaid, from 9am until 3 or 4pm. Luckily I managed to get onto a shift at 10am.

Another worker was not as lucky. She was asked to be ready at 8am but was not offered work until 4pm the same day – eight unpaid hours.

Racial profiling

One worker felt that they, and others, had been racially profiled. They told The Canary that after a long shift:

The [security guards] selected a few “random” staff members to be searched. Once we were all outside, we realised that they only asked the people of colour. All the white staff members were still on [the] bar.

We were all thoroughly searched – a proper close body search by a female member of staff… and then a male member of security staff checked my bag. He looked through my crackers, opening them up to check between each one. He felt through all my snacks and even opened my film camera which overexposed it, ruining a whole roll of memories… One of the Black girls was quite visibly upset and wanted to ask one of the management staff about it but decided that they probably wouldn’t care so left it.

Security staff, according to all the workers The Canary spoke with, were overly intrusive throughout the festival. One claimed:

We were so closely searched to make sure we wasn’t stealing after shifts.

When one worker decided to quit, they said:

I let them cut my wrist band with an outrageously large knife and left.

Food

The employment ‘contract’ stated that the company “will offer… regular breaks and food four times a day to look after our staff”. According to numerous workers, this promise was not met. One recalled:

[The] food was ridiculous… We weren’t even given milk or sugar for coffee… [We were] told we get three meals a day [but there was] no food for veggies or vegans.

Other workers explained that their dietary requirements were ignored:

Given that we were not allowed into the general festival at all, this meant that I was relying on this company – which I felt had a total disregard for the welfare of their workers – for food.

I have a severe allergy to dairy (epi pen etc.) and the only food they brought for us to eat between 4pm and 3:30am was cheeseburgers, which I told the management four times I couldn’t eat, to which I was told to ‘stop being a child’ and that ‘nobody is going to go get you food at this time’.

‘Never in my life have I been treated with such disrespect’

By Thursday, the day before the festival officially began, many of the workers had already quit in disgust. Those that stayed came to regret their decision:

Myself and others were told that we could finish our shifts at 12am as that was when we were told the bar closed. However, the bar in fact closed at 4am, and despite being told we could leave at 12am, management refused to sign us out. They repeatedly said “we are not forcing you to work”… [but] there were security guards standing in the exits to the bar stopping people from leaving. They [the employment agency] had our IDs, and they told us to ‘just carry on working instead of standing around doing nothing’.

This made it feel very much like we were being forced to work. Never in my life have I been treated with such disrespect for my general welfare at work and due to this fact I left the next day along with more than half of the staff. It appeared that the ‘contract’ we signed when we arrived did not in fact carry any weighting and appeared to be another intimidation method on behalf of the management.

After finishing work at 4am, staff realised they would have to present themselves for work the same morning. If they weren’t available to work each day, as the contract claimed they would lose their wristbands and be forced to pay the full price of the festival. Of course, it was possible to leave the festival for good – but many had already arranged transport for after the festival finished. Stuck in a wet field far from home, they felt powerless and exploited.

Fast forward – weeks later

Over one month after the festival ended, numerous staff told The Canary that they had still not been paid. In one case, a staff member claimed that Harrison Lee Recruitment told them that:

I’ve been banned from working with them because I’ve been ‘badmouthing [them] on Facebook’. I say ok but will I still get paid for Boomtown? They say yes.

On the 27th [of August], I finally get paid the Sunday wages. They are way under what I was expecting to have earned… they tell me that tax is deducted and that if I have a problem with it, I can contact HMRC.

The Canary has seen screenshots of Harrison Lee Recruitment asking workers to “please… avoid posting in the [‘Festival Jobs’ Facebook] group” about their horrific treatment.

Others were not just underpaid, but still not paid at all over a month after the festival ended:

You can’t keep your tips and now no-one’s been paid… I’m owed £150… but others are owed like £500.

The Canary has seen separate posts on social media claiming that people were not paid: “No breaks, no food, confiscate your ID/phone/money, UNPAID, hostile security”.

No comment

The Canary contacted Boomtown festival and all three recruitment agencies for comment.

Boomtown responded:

We are aware that there have been a handful of concerns raised by contracted staff. Staff welfare is something we take very seriously and we work closely with our contractors to review feedback and ensure any issues are resolved.  These claims are currently with Freemans Event Partners and are being dealt with via their appropriate channels and as such we are not in a position to comment on any ongoing investigations.
Freemans Event Partners responded that the seven separate workers’ testimonies “lack substance”, and that:

Freemans takes staff welfare seriously at all the events it has been involved with over the last 40 years, including the Boomtown Festival.  The allegations in your email lack substance and take appropriate security procedures (in place for the protection of the staff) out of context, thereby distorting the facts and creating a misleading impression of the contractual arrangements all staff willingly accepted when taking the role over the weekend.

We invite all our colleagues to raise legitimate concerns with us so that we can deal with the same promptly through the proper channels. All staff were required to provide identification confirming they were eligible to work in the UK.  All ID documents have been returned.  Should those who contacted you have remaining concerns, please encourage them to contact me so I can address them fully following the correct procedure.  However, as far as we are aware, there are no outstanding issues.

Although The Canary was told that numerous complaints remained outstanding, Harrison Lee Recruitment responded:

To the best of our knowledge, all complaints and allegations that have been previously made by staff directly, have been responded to and answered.  Should any further complaints or allegations be made, these need to be directed to us in the same manner – directly, and not through a 3rd Party.  We can then address them and work to resolve them.

As of the time of publication, Mint Staffing Solutions – which appears to have legally dissolved and not re-listed on Companies House – did not respond to The Canary‘s questions. A brief scroll through the company’s reviews suggest this isn’t the first time staff have been utterly let down by this agency.

In fact, a former Mint staffer at the BBC‘s 2018 Big Weekender Festival in Swansea told The Canary that she experienced similar treatment. “It just ripped the soul out of people”, she said:

Festivals are supposed to be an enriching experience and you find pieces of yourself that you didn’t know existed. It’s not supposed to strip you of your dignity and I feel for those – you know, university students and younger people – who were there… I got in touch with the BBC and nothing happened.

>She concluded: “These employment agencies shouldn’t be in any position of power”.

Gig economy on steroids

To be sure, seasonal work is, quite literally, the gig economy. Long hours, cumbersome work, and exposure to the elements are to be expected. Yet at this year’s Boomtown Fair, the treatment of staff was wholly unethical and quite possibly illegal.

The Canary spoke with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) about the legal implications of events at Boomtown. Tom Neil, ACAS Senior Guidance Adviser, said:

Casual work of this type can be common, especially for young people and students looking for work in summer months. However, employment rights and responsibilities don’t change just because the work is temporary or viewed as somewhere that might be a more fun or ‘unusual’ type of workplace.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees and responsibility to ensure they are paid correctly for their hours worked and are given enough time to rest, regardless of where they are working.

Ultimately, this story reveals something more sinister about seasonal work. Those that work the festival scene are frequently from vulnerable demographics: young, short on cash, and not always aware of what constitutes abusive working conditions. And once in a far-away field, lacking the means to return home, their ability to protest their situation is strictly limited. These are ripe conditions for predatory employment firms to prey on vulnerable staff – and this, it appears, they have.

The companies involved must be held to account.

Featured image via Flickr/Mr Seb

Get involved

  • If you also worked at Boomtown Fair or with an employment agency and would like to share a similar experience, contact jmcevoy2@protonmail.com

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