Performers will be urged to pursue legal action against companies paying less than the minimum wage, as part of a new Equity campaign aimed at stamping out exploitation in the industry.
The union’s plans for targeted activity around the issue of low and unpaid work in the performing arts sector has arisen from a working party, which made 19 recommendations to the union’s ruling council on how to progress Equity’s policy on the subject.
These recommendations, all of which were backed by the council, included doing more to encourage “members to fight national minimum wage cases”, persuading casting companies “not to include low pay/no pay work”, and clarifying what is meant by profit share.
Equity’s campaign is also expected to provide tighter guidelines on members’ rights for performers working in fringe theatre.
President Malcolm Sinclair said: “Working for nothing is becoming too usual for newcomers to the profession, and not just newcomers. An Equity working party has been examining this whole matter. Underlying our whole approach is the belief that if anyone makes money out of a show, then the performer makes money.”
The union is taking action following persistent complaints from performers that they are asked to work for rates of pay below the minimum wage or for no fee at all, with casting websites such as StarNow regularly posting adverts from production companies offering such opportunities.
The issue is particularly rife in the television industry, with well-known production companies often placing calls for actors to appear as extras or background artists under terms that flout minimum wage legislation.
Most recently, Graham Norton’s production company So Television was accused of flouting the law, by calling on performers to work on an expenses-only basis.
Sinclair said members will be encouraged to consider legal action against such companies. He added that the union is keen to see the law changed so that a trade union can take so-called ‘class actions’ on behalf of a group of workers in order to test the national minimum wage legislation.
Currently, only an individual employee can take such action, but Sinclair warned most workers are very reluctant to do that “for the understandable reason that it would badly affect their relationship with their employer”.
The Equity president said the Trades Union Congress is lobbying to get this changed, so “trade unions can do what they are supposed to do – fight for workers’ rights”.
Plans for the union’s campaign also include publishing a leaflet explaining the issues to members and clarification to drama schools detailing what conditions are acceptable when employing Equity members.
Equity spokesman Martin Brown said the campaign is aimed at helping performers “assert their rights”.
“This is an important issue that concerns members, particularly those starting out in the industry, very greatly. The work of the low pay and no pay rights working party has been very important in concentrating minds on what we need to do to empower members to assert their rights,” Brown said.