Amateur Wage as a Professional Slave?

Amateur Wage as a Professional Slave?

The ongoing discussion on our Watercooler forum headed ‘Camera Person with Own Kit: £100’ gets to the heart of the worries of thousands of TV freelancers. At first reading, it looks as if the debate is about what is a fair rate for the job. In fact, the real subject is whether the team offering the work, and the people who apply to do it, are working within a professional industry, or one for amateur enthusiasts.

Let us be in no doubt that there is a professional television industry. A 2005 Film Council study noted that the UK’s total TV turnover was £13.4 billion in the previous year, and it has grown over the last four years. Skillset estimates that there are some 75,000 people whose livelihoods directly depend on that turnover for their income, which probably includes you and me.

Film and television-making is not a monopoly controlled by the professionals, any more than baking is controlled by Rank Hovis McDougall. You can bake cakes at home, or to sell at your tea shop but if you were employed to make Mr Kipling’s French Fancies, you would not expect to bake them in your home oven, and you would expect to be paid a sustainable rate in return for your employers’ intention to make a profit from them.

We can only presume that the film to be made by the £100 camera person (plus sound, own kit, and interviewing) need not be made to anything other than home-video standard, by someone fairly familiar with their consumer DV camera. By looking at the company’s existing online video content you would easily conclude this was not a professional assignment.

But you are a professional programme-maker, working within a casualised industry in which there are more people available to work to a high standard than there are jobs for everyone to do. How do you protect your rates from falling until you can’t make a living from your work? It is not enough to refuse to work for less on your own behalf, you need to team up with thousands of other freelancers and work together to ensure decent rates. The simplest way of doing this is to join a union, and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same. To do anything else is to go it alone, and find yourself picked off individually with no-one to help you. The unions are not there to cause obstructions, but to act as facilitators who can make your working life easier. As things stand, most TV freelancers find that the unions able to support their interests are BECTU and the NUJ.

The production unions don’t work from the top down any more, they are only as good as their membership. BECTU’s membership appears to be growing again after years of decline, but there are still thousands of working programme-makers who are not members, which weakens its ability to negotiate on behalf of the whole sector. It has agreed pay rates with Pact, but these are only ‘recommended’ rates.

If we look at the situation with another industry which has amateur and professional participants – the theatre industry, it’s a very different situation. Theatre is a smaller business than television’s, with an annual turnover of £1 billion but because BECTU, Musicians Union and Equity are very strong within this sector, they have negotiated healthy minimum rates for their members. These rates are the guaranteed minimum that performers and theatre employees will be paid, not recommendations.

To give you some idea of where these rates stand, a musician working at a West End theatre production cannot be paid less than £680 per week. Overtime, extra performances and pension contributions also gain agreed additional rates. A stage manager’s rate starts at £650 and although this isn’t a big income, is it the very least that this person will be paid.

BECTU managed to negotiate with the Society of London Theatre a 2.5% rise in minimum rates for its members from last October. When did you last hear of a rise in TV production rates? I think that they have been shrinking in real terms for the last 20 years.

There is no confusing a big West End musical spectacular with an amateur dramatic production, and the participants are paid accordingly. The same divisions exist in film and video production. The unions are professional organisations, an integral part of our industry, and they exist to improve your career, but only if you join and take part.