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Why we joined forces to tackle TV workers’ rights

By guest blogger Sharon Elliot, BECTU

Senior factual TV executives from the US and Canada are checking in to London this week to meet their international counterparts at Realscreen London, an event dominated by a host of UK producers.

Organisers promise that this inaugural event will “further strengthen the emerging partnership paradigm between UK and international producers and global buyers by fostering networking, idea exchange and dialogue.”

Yet one key topic is missing from the formal agenda of the two-day event: how the sector treats its workforce.

Organizers from CMG, BECTU and Writers Guild of America East meeting in London on October 8.

While employers are coming together to explore production partnerships, so too are the sector’s trade unions, united in their experience of the negative impact on workers of inadequate budgets, excessive working hours and weak attention to workforce welfare.

The UK’s media and entertainment union BECTU, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) and the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE) have joined forces to encourage producers to sign up to decent minimum standards of work.

Bectu’s ongoing Say No to Exploitation in TV campaign, launched two years ago and extensively covered byBroadcast, has found strong parallels in Canada.

The Canadian Media Guild has been organising with workers in independent factual TV production since last year, when a number of people approached the union with concerns about working conditions and lack of voice.

Following Bectu’s lead, the CMG surveyed 328 workers in a matter of weeks. The results were troubling: no job security, a culture of risk-taking that was leading to accidents and injury, runaway hours and a lack of power to do anything about it.

A second survey, conducted this summer, found that the problems persist.

Dozens of Canadian workers have already signed on to an effort to achieve collective bargaining for people working in this growing and profitable industry and the outreach continues.

CMG has joined with Bectu and WGAE to put forward an international set of principles for production companies to commit to treating their workers fairly and to ensure the industry can sustain itself.

“People are burning out and getting hurt,” says CMG national president Carmel Smyth.

“Without the talented people who make the content – who research the stories and the people, find the cast, shoot and edit the material, shape each episode into a coherent package for viewers – the industry will fail. We’re here to help build a sustainable industry that takes the needs of the workers into account.”

The Writers Guild of America East, which also works with writers and producers of non-fiction ”reality” TV shows and production talent across all other genres for broadcast, cable networks and online distribution, is equally committed to improving conditions for workers in factual.

“They craft compelling stories that attract large audiences and enormous revenues, and the production companies that employ them reap huge – and growing – profits,” says Justin Molito, one of the WGAE’s organisers.

The WGAE’s industry-wide campaign to represent these freelance employees started more than four years ago, and the union has communicated with thousands of writer-producers about their concerns and needs.

The WGAE has won every representation election it has requested. It has negotiated strong collective bargaining agreements with three significant non-fiction production companies and is bargaining with another.

Unfortunately, some companies – including ITV – refuse to respect their employees’ right to be protected by collectively-bargained agreements.

US elected officials at the local, state, and federal level have urged ITV to reach agreement with the WGAE and the labour movements of the US, the UK and the globe have joined the struggle. This battle has been covered extensively in the US and UK press.

The three unions will be urging factual producers to adopt this set of fundamental principles, whether producing at home or internationally:
–  Pay people fairly for the work they do
–  Reasonable working hours
–  Reasonable time off, including appropriate paid time off
–  Negotiate terms with workers and/or their union in good faith and a timely manner. Seal it with a written contract
–  Make the safety and health of everyone involved a top priority for each production
–  No penalties or reprisals against workers represented by a union or guild

Bectu’s campaign in the UK is supported by a 2013 Code of Practice. It has produced some positives, though it’s clear that to date the majority of UK-based producers of  factual content – whether they are members of employers’ associations, are more concerned about future commissions than about the urgent need for constructive engagement with workers and their representatives to drive up employment standards in the sector.

This article was originally published in Broadcast.

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