Like the arrival of the John Lewis Christmas advert or chocolate money in the high street, it may feel too soon to be talking about pantomime. But now is when contracts go out and companies start to build their backstage and technical teams. Confidentiality clauses are for the public, but costume professionals talk among ourselves and compare pay, hours, conditions and benefits.
Last year, I celebrated the art of panto costumes and how they form the very heart of the show – especially the dame, whose every entrance involves an outfit more outlandish than the one before.
But for all that, it is a depressing time to be a costume professional working on a panto. Some contracts feel like the work of some back-office Machiavelli trying as hard as possible to obscure the criminally low pay.
HMRC has strict rules about people who are technically employed being paid as freelancers. The definition of a self-employed person is that they use their own equipment, complete the job in their own time to a deadline, and, crucially, have the freedom to decide how and when they work on the project.
By contrast an employee has to turn up when they are told and use the employer’s equipment with no say in how they organise their hours. So clearly a wardrobe head of department, dresser or laundry professional is not a freelancer in a tax sense.
Even if they complete a tax return at the end of the year, the employer should be paying tax and national insurance for that person. This creates a problem for producers. An employee has rights, sick pay, holiday entitlement and minimum wage. So, the dilemma is how to keep HMRC happy while keeping costs down.
Simple: call the wage a fee and parcel it out over the weeks of the contract. Or call it a weekly buy-out and ignore that the hours actually worked will always be more than you have paid for. Do not pay overtime or double time for a Sunday. Have three shows a day, but build no breaks into the costume team’s time. Ensure that you pay BECTU rates to the crew and Equity rates to the stage managers.
The panto industry is built around trying to fit as many performances as possible into the limited time available to take advantage of the seasonal audience. Were panto producers to pay honestly, for every hour their costume employees worked, the bill would be enormous.
Perhaps it would make the entire endeavour unaffordable. After all, isn’t this always the argument for not increasing wages? But if the entire panto industry would indeed fold if the costume department were paid fairly, that means those women (and it is mostly women, of course) are subsiding all the other departments. Their underpaid labour is allowing the entire show to go ahead. Does this sound fair, boys and girls? Oh no, it doesn’t.