One of the issues facing costume professionals in the fight for better pay and conditions is the myriad ways in which we are paid. There are agreements that exist between various bodies and our union BECTU, which aim to ensure that those who work in costume are paid fairly. But the sheer number of venues, producers and types of theatre makes it impossible for the union to police every contract.
The predictable result is that venues, producers and buildings make up their own contracts to suit their needs, and unfairness can spring up almost anywhere.
Consider this scenario: you are being asked to run the tour of a show that was last seen in a national house where you know pay and conditions are good. You sign the contract in good faith as you believe that it is the best deal you are entitled to. You are surprised that the gaps in the tour are unpaid but you are young and have not worked a tour before and you trust the national company brand even though the touring company is different.
Only belatedly, while actually on the tour, does it dawn that you are only being paid during the weeks the show is actively being performed, not during the weeks it is moving. Worse, it seems that sound, stage management and electricians are all being paid for the break weeks and getting holiday pay on top. When you query this you are informed that you are a “worker” and not on a contract. But you have signed a contract. How does the company get away with it?
HMRC is pretty clear about what denotes a fixed term employee: “Fixed-term contracts last for a certain length of time; are set in advance; end when a specific task is completed or when a specific event takes place.” It’s hard to see how a touring wardrobe manager’s work doesn’t fit this description. They are working for the length of the tour, the dates and hours are set in advance and their employment finishes as soon as the tour ends.
People will often work side by side without ever discovering that their colleagues are being paid under different terms
Most importantly: “Fixed-term employees must receive the same treatment as full-time permanent staff.” But ignorance is bliss, and as long as the taboo remains about talking about pay, people will often work side by side without ever discovering that their colleagues are being paid under different terms. Of course producers are bound to try as hard as they can to reduce costs, but conversely theatre professionals need to be less afraid to push back, even in these straitened times.
These days, it’s unfashionable to praise unions, but they can really help you feel supported, especially early in your career – being a union rep I know this more than most. We all need to be brave about sharing our pay and conditions with friends from other departments and in other theatres to prevent sleight of hand from going unnoticed. Negotiation is a game we shouldn’t be afraid to play: scrutinise your contracts with care, be aware of your rights as an employee and don’t be afraid to ask for them.
Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek