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A former factual TV director speaks out about why CMG is calling for change to Ontario’s labour laws

Two special advisers to Ontario’s Minister of Labour are about to release their recommendations on how to address the growing precariousness of work.  The factual and reality TV industry offers a prime example of why change is needed.  Here is a personal account by long-time TV director Denise O’Connell.

About a year and a half ago, I left the world of independent production.  For 20 years, I produced and directed reality and factual television: news, current affairs, documentaries, children’s programming, and reality and lifestyle television.  I made an excellent living and loved it. 

But then my marriage fell apart, and I suddenly became a single mom.  I can no longer rely on a spouse to pick up the slack when I am on set for 16+ hours.  I have to be home in the morning to see my kids off to school, and have to be home by dinnertime, and to chauffeur kids to basketball practice, piano lessons and doctors’ and dentists’ appointments. 

So, I took a corporate 9-5 job, and a pay cut. I work in a small video team for a financial institution.

Even though I love my new position, and the people I work with, I often have pondered why the industry has evolved so that only the very precious few, at the top, have steady staff jobs, regular hours, decent rates of pay, and benefits?  We are all skilled labour, many of us with extensive post-secondary education.  Why can’t we have some simple, consistent working standards?

We are not alone in factual and reality television.  Much of the economy is now based on non-permanent work of various types.  But our industry provides a vivid example of how the exploitation works. Most of us work multiple small contracts at once to make a living.  Most of us work well beyond a standard 8-hour day and not because it’s our choice.  Production companies have become very accustomed to scheduling workers for 12 or 14-hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, with no overtime because they know workers are usually paid on a straight daily or weekly rate.

As a single mom, I can’t do 12 or 14 hours and then face a commute, get laundry done and groceries, help with homework, and be in good spirits to be a good, loving parent.  I have to put my children first, and I shouldn’t ever have to apologize for that (even though many production managers have shot me daggers when I’ve had to leave early).

The Ontario government is finally getting the picture.  It is sitting up and taking notice of the “gig economy”, and those like me who are finding few benefits in it.  The Changing Workplaces Review has been seeking input from groups about how to change labour law to protect precarious workers. Like us.  The Canadian Media Guild has been using factual and reality television as an example of some of the most egregious abuses of employment, and here is what hope to see in the recommendations:

-We need to be accurately classified. Right now we’re called ‘independent contractors’.  This denies us access to employment insurance or other rights that employees have, such as rest days and paid holidays and vacations. We need a new hybrid classification (e.g. ‘freelance employee’) that reflects the fact that while we go from one contract to another, we function as employees once on a project.

-We need to get rid of the blanket special exemption the film and television industry gets under the Employment Standards Act.  The industry does not need this extensive protection, which has evaded scrutiny for decades.  This one change would bring some of us who are considered employees an 8-hour day, overtime, paid holidays, and vacation pay.

-We need the right to collective bargaining, like others such as actors, directors, and crew in scripted programming.  If we can’t speak collectively about the things that matter to us, we will never see things improve.

While I had to leave the industry, I long for the day that I can return to factual and reality television, and I hope that the Ontario government takes the recommendations of the Changing Workplaces Review seriously.  If the industry doesn’t change, it will lose more like me — experienced, creative and professional workers who are done with the lack of work-life balance and dangerous working conditions.  The industry and the workers in it need sustainable work.

If you haven’t done so yet, please lend your support to the Canadian Media Guild by signing on to the Campaign for Fairness for Factual TV workers. 


And feel free to share your story on our Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/fairnessinfactualTV/


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