the media and entertainment union
a sector of Prospect
Long hours and Brexit headline union event

BIG Crew event, Regent Hall. Pic: Guy Smallman

25 October 2017

One of the highlights of Union Week (16-20 October) was our BIG Crew event at London's Regent Hall attended by close to 200 people. Here Penny Vevers captures the essence of the discussion which covered long hours in film and the ever present challenges of Brexit. Thank you to everyone who took part.

Nearly 200 professionals in film, TV and commercials packed Regent Hall in central London on Wednesday (October 18) to discuss two major challenges facing their industry – long hours and life after Brexit – and the difference that union membership can make.

The Big Crew event was organised by the BECTU sector of Prospect during Union Week. It  also launched the union’s new campaign – Eyes Half Shut – to tackle the scourge of long hours for crews in film, commercials and TV, many them freelancers. 

Join the union together

The meeting began with a video and short talk from Joe Pavlo, one of BECTU's leading reps in VFX, on VFX Assemble! a new recruitment initiative designed to address the isolation or fear which some in VFX feel when it comes to expressing their support for unionisation. 

The recruitment campaign is targeting the four main visual effects companies - DNeg, ILM, MPC and Framestore - using a kickstarter model; VFX workers are encouraged to join BECTU knowing that their membership will only be activated when more than 50% of people at a target company have signed up.

It is hoped that this method will give workers the confidence the exercise their right to join their union. “We hope this will capture people’s attention. It’s anonymous, it’s risk free, so there’s nothing to lose,” Joe Pavlo concluded.

Brexit hopes and fears

The focus of the meeting then moved to Brexit. First BECTU’s freelance and research officer Tony Lennon, tackled the uncertainties for the sector since prime minister Theresa May’s Florence speech.

Tony explained that three key issues needed resolving – the Irish border, freedom of movement, and the UK’s financial commitments – before discussions about what happens after Brexit could even begin.

One area of hope for film, TV and entertainment was May’s reference to a sector-by-sector agreement. This would give BECTU the opportunity to talk about the internationalised workforce, free movement of goods and people across borders, and the protection of workers’ rights.

“As a union, Prospect and BECTU are committed to maintaining the employment freedoms, movement and economic activity of all the workers in our industry, whether in the UK or EU,” he said.

Following Tony Lennon, Carole Tongue, a consultant and former MEP, said 90% of people in the creative sector opposed Brexit, with the industry’s culture depending on links with the EU and the ability to cross frontiers. Other concerns included copyright law, online remuneration and levies, and EU funding for films.

Carole compared Brexit to an X-ray, saying: “We are starting to see the bones of our relationship with the EU, and as the X-ray becomes clearer, I hope public opinion will shift.”

Another guest, Samantha Perahia, head of UK production at the British Film Commission, and responsible for inward investment, pointed out that Britain had the best crew talent infrastructure in the world but needed access to international talent given the volume of production taking place in the UK. 

The good news, said Samantha, was that the creative industries sector was one of only two growing parts of the UK economy (the other being retail), which “gives us a voice at the table”.

Long hours bad for business

BECTU national secretary Spencer Macdonald kicked off the session on long hours by telling people about the union’s ground-breaking new collective feature film agreement. BECTU will be balloting members on the deal this month after protracted negotiations with producers’ organisation PACT.

Spencer MacDonald said that whilst not all demands had been met, the agreement will, for the first time, cover things like overtime, time off the clock, night work, meal breaks and travel.

Paul Evans, assistant national secretary, co-authored the Eyes Half Shut report with Prospect head of research Jonathan Green.

Campaign petition

Encouraging the audience to share the report's findings, and to wear and share badges given out on the night, Paul Evans said the ultimate aim was to secure agreement from industry employers to establish a commission on the counterproductive long-hours culture in the UK film and TV industries. A petition is up and running in support of the campaign.

The research, which members had asked for, has laid bare the damaging impact of the long hours culture to workers' health and family life, with women always coming off the worst.

Survey respondents routinely worked extremely long shifts with no lunch breaks or pay for extra hours. People who were tired made mistakes and people reported falling asleep at the wheel while driving home.

A key issue was the quality of management, said Paul Evans.

"Employers need convincing that long hours are bad for business and damaging to productivity. It’s particularly bad for industries that rely on freelancers. Every employer is passing the parcel in a way that damages quality and efficiency and drives people out. This will wreck the British TV and film industry in the long term. Our job as a union is to save the industry from itself.”

The members’ perspective

Organising official Emily Collin introduced a panel of five members willing to share their perspectives on long hours.

Nicole Young, Costume and Wardrobe branch, in the business for 35 years, said long hours were notorious in her department , but people needed to start questioning whether they really needed to be there.  

Charlotte Sewell, from the same branch and in the business since 1992, agreed it was time to stop being afraid. She felt those who had worked in the industry longer had a responsibility to look out for younger workers, particularly runners, who were invariably last out of the door.

“We have been through it and learned that you can’t burn the candle at both ends. We as managers have to send them home,” she said.

Joe Pavlo, Visual Effects branch, felt much could be fixed with proper project management training. Many managers lacked the right skills because they had learned on the job.

Dan Roberts, Production and Facilities branch, said seeing the long days many of his members worked had prompted him to write an article for the website. He had been inundated with responses and this new research partly come about as a result.

A simple change could be to stagger start and finish times for crew.

Amie Tridgell, Locations branch, agreed it was time to push back. This was not about avoiding hard work but being more efficient, she stressed. Working long hours should no longer be seen as a badge of honour.

The event was wrapped up by Andrea, from Picturehouse Central, who spoke about the cinema workers’ fight for the national living wage. On the way out audience members donated generously to the cinema workers’ strike fund.

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