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Mass meeting of VFX workers says industry needs fixing

Regent Hall, Oxford Street

15 January 2016

A mass meeting of VFX workers earlier this week (Wednesday 13 January) showed how deeply staff feel about staff welfare and called on the industry to correct its shortcomings.

Close to 400 people attended the huge meeting at Regent Hall, Oxford Street. That's right, four hundred people. But whilst the evening was cold and wet, the mood of the meeting was anything but.

VFX workers are a remarkable bunch: characterful, patient and kind. Those at the meeting were probably representative of every continent, a factor also reflected in BECTU's growing VFX branch which has to be the most international in the union. Why so? Because London is the place to develop a career in VFX with 50 per cent of the world's blockbuster VFX capacity located in the capital.

Blots on the landscape

VFX creatives love their work and, like their peers elsewhere in the cultural sector, their dedication is second to none. Members of this talent base want the industry to continue on its upward trajectory, however a mature, responsible industry can only do this sustainably if it pays due attention to staff welfare. Long hours and unpaid overtime are major blots on this landscape. 

The industry, which continues to reap PR rewards after acclaimed films such as Life of Pi and Gravity has a poor reputation in terms of how it treats staff. Tales of executives squabbling over whose sofa is to be given up to accommodate a worker whose shift has run on past midnight or of harsh words meted out to a supervisor who dared to allow a colleague to leave early after two excessively long days in a row, are just the tip of the iceberg. So too, distressing conversations between partners who despair of the impact VFX work is having on their relationship.

We know how demanding the industry is, to the point where people are told to put their social lives on hold or where skilled individuals leave jobs they love because of workplace inflexibility. 

Is VFX, this multi-million pound, Oscar-winning enterprise, the cause of occupational burnout? Most definitely. Do some companies, despite the burdens they heap on staff, excel at making their staff feel disposable? Absolutely.  We, and thousand of others represented by the 400 people who sat through a two-hour meeting on a dark January night, are crying out for change. And what is worse, the calls for workplace justice and ethical practice are well known.

Employers in denial

Three years ago the Regent Hall was also bursting at the seams when a similar ground-breaking meeting took place. BECTU's VFX branch was born and workers started to organise in earnest. BECTU officials then invited the leading employers, Moving Picture Company (MPC), Framestore and DNeg, to meetings but they would only meet under the umbrella organisation, the UK Screen Association.

Several discussions happened but executives insisted that no report of the meetings could be shared. BECTU showed goodwill, in the hope of achieving a breakthrough, but this soon evaporated when it was clear that the employers were in denial about the hardships being imposed on their staff. The results of a union survey into working conditions were denounced by several employers. 

Three years on the issues haven't gone away and all the signs are that the unethical business model which dictates that staff will be compelled to work overtime, in breach of the Working Time Regulations, is even more entrenched.

Collective solutions are needed

BECTU continues to support individual members with workplace issues but the need for collective solutions to deliver the rest, work/life balance and family life staff deserve is all the more pressing. 

Union membership continues to grow. As a result formal recognition claims have been submitted at MPC and at Framestore in recent weeks. 

BECTU is working with members to bring about change in VFX to improve workers' lives and to enhance the industry's reputation. We want audiences to admire the output, confident that broken hearts don't lie behind the pictures they see. 

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