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Equity opens up membership to child actors from age ten

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Performers as young as ten are now eligible to join Equity for the first time in more than 20 years, as the union seeks to provide protection to child artists in high-profile shows such as Matilda.

The move, which sees the joining age lowered from 14, marks a U-turn for the union, which had previously discussed and dismissed a proposal to admit younger performers in 2007.

At that time, however, no lower age limit was recommended, with councillors eventually rejecting the principle after union officials raised concerns about the level of support it could realistically provide young performers. Equity spokesman Martin Brown said the union at that time “just did not have the expertise or ability to represent that whole [age] span.”

But he told The Stage: “After that proposal we thought more carefully about it and about what we could do. One of the things that has been troubling us is that we do miss professionals who emerge at a very early age. You now have quite a few people who worked on Harry Potter who clearly are going to make a substantial career out of the industry and we were not able to offer them membership and therefore the support they might need.”

Children were once eligible for temporary membership under a measure introduced in 1969, when union cards were needed to work in the industry.

However, this was dropped in 1988, with the end of the ‘closed shop’ system under Margaret Thatcher.

Brown admitted that the new joining age of ten had been a “relatively random pick” but added that the union believed people “working seriously at ten are the ones we can reasonably expect to go on and have a professional career”.

Citing the children in the musical Matilda as an example, he said: “Clearly someone working like that in the West End deserves to have the protection of the union.”

However, Brown said the challenge for the union would be to persuade employers to accept the union representing the youngsters.

At the moment, the only industrial agreement the union has that recognises children is in the West End, where a pay rate of at least half that of what an adult receives has been set.

Brown admitted the union had a big task on its hands, but added: “Equity believes the employers will have everything to gain from cooperating with it in this area, particularly in films, TV and the West End, because it helps to regularise everything.”

He added that children’s employment in the entertainment industry was “incredibly wrapped around with regulations”, but revealed the union would be taking “proper legal advice” about what it could offer children aged ten and above, who would not have democratic rights in Equity until they are 16.

The government launched a review of current licensing arrangements for children in entertainment at the end of 2010, but no report has yet been published.

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