The government is under increased pressure to clamp down on unpaid work in the entertainment industry, after research revealed that a third of new entrants to the sector have worked for free on ten or more jobs.
The survey was carried out by BECTU, and the results have been included in the union’s response to the Low Pay Commission’s 2013 report, due to be published in February. The report advises the government on policy concerning the national minimum wage.
Both BECTU and Equity have issued responses to the LPC, calling on Whitehall to take a more robust stance on companies that break the law by hiring actors and backstage staff on rates lower than the minimum wage, or for no money at all.
In particular, BECTU is calling for the advertising of unpaid work to be made illegal.
Martin Spence, BECTU assistant general secretary, said: “I think our survey reveals there is a lot of anger, disappointment and frustration about the prevalence of unpaid work, and a range of opinions, [from those who wonder] whether this is just the way the world is, to those who believe absolutely passionately it must and should be challenged.”
The survey of more than 200 people found that 32.8% had had more than ten “unpaid engagements” since starting out in the entertainment sector.
More than a third, 35.7%, said taking unpaid jobs had had a “negative impact” on their attempts to find paid work in the long run.
In its submission to the LPC, BECTU argues that the main area of “illegally unpaid work” is in the low-budget film production sector. It claims “volunteering and work experience may be used to mask the reality of unpaid work”.
The union claims the work of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which enforces the minimum wage, is being “undermined” because it is not allowed to report on its activities or its successes.
“We believe there is a perception among some employers in the film and TV sector that they can flout the NMW with impunity, and that perception will persist while enforcement activities, and successes, remain closely guarded secrets,” it states.
It highlights a case brought against the television production company Talkback Thames, which produces The X Factor, over claims that it was hiring unpaid interns as fashion assistants. HMRC investigated the claims, and the interns were subsequently compensated.
But BECTU said: “The report of unpaid interns on The X Factor was not broken by the HMRC but by a graduate lobby group… even though the report reflected entirely favourably on HMRC itself.”
According to the union’s survey of new entrants, 72.3% believe it should be illegal for employers to advertise work that breaches the NMW.
Spence said: “A very clear majority were agreed that advertisements for positions that were clearly unpaid shouldn’t be possible.
“It should not be legal to post them. It’s completely ridiculous in our view.” He added the union had raised this issue before, but now had evidence to back its call.
The union’s submission highlights that it analysed 110 adverts placed on mandy.com, and found that 42% were “explicit about the work being unpaid” or below minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Equity, in its response to the LPC, states it has concerns about the lack of “enforcement activity currently undertaken by HMRC in our industry” and adds that it fears “this work will be further threatened by public sector funding cuts”.
The union argues that “enforcement would be greatly enhanced” if the government “removed the barrier of employment tribunals only hearing cases brought by individual workers”.
“Many workers with minimum wage problems are too scared to enforce their rights,” it adds.
Equity’s submission voices concern that employers in the entertainment sector, including theatres, have charitable status, claiming some use this to “justify non-payment of the NMW”.
The union also claims a government helpline that deals with pay rights issues has been informing actors that they are not entitled to the minimum wage because they are classified as “self employed”.