The struggle for paid work
To work for free or not to work for free?
That’s the question which new entrants, particularly in TV and film, continue to struggle with due to weak regulation of the national minimum wage. With resources clearly stretched at the HMRC’s Compliance Unit, there is currently little to stop employers who are happy to break the law.
Let’s be honest, no one would work for free unless they thought they absolutely had to to get a handle on their career. The fault lies with employers who succeed in exploiting the huge interest in work in the creative sectors, so much so that young people believe they have to work for free to gain experience. And let’s be clear, we are talking about proper work here – work which but for the huge oversupply of labour at new entrant level would be paid for. That’s work as distinct from work experience which industry guidance says can be unpaid for a maximum of four weeks as part of a course of study.
In August BECTU ran a short survey amongst new entrants to check on the current situation. Amongst more than 200 respondents 75% were members and 25% non members. It’s clear from the feedback that new entrants’ attitude to unpaid work is ambiguous – it’s seen as an unavoidable evil.
By and large unpaid work is viewed as something which has to be endured but the cynicism and sense of grievance which builds up as a result is clear. “It can help to build a portfolio, but it has other negatives sides too’ says one. ‘Unpaid jobs very rarely lead to gainful employment” says another. ‘Should I really have to work on adverts and short films funded more often than not by big money, for no money, for stress and no other tangible return’? asks one.
Recognition of the existence of the national minimum wage amongst new entrants appears to be mixed and it’s probably fair to say that whatever understanding there is is eclipsed both by their passion to succeed and by the scale of unpaid engagements in the sector. It seems clear that the young person’s imperative (and most new entrants are young) is to get as much experience as possible even if this means subsidising the employer. BECTU understands there will be occasions when groups want to come together, for example to make a short film, without there being any intended employment relationship. BECTU ‘s Guidance for New Film-makers can be downloaded from here.
The survey reveals support for action against ads for unpaid work but respondents’ replies do point to the complexity of creative media work which is populated not only by low to medium budget and high-end funded activity but by projects organised by the voluntary and charitable sectors which are seen by some as stepping stones into the profession. “Unpaid work being advertised opens an opportunity for young trainees to expand their knowledge and contacts” says one. Qualified support for efforts to ban illegal ads comes from another “Yes within reason. A clear definition of ‘employer’ is needed as I would not support these measures if they outlawed voluntary work”. “It depends on the nature of the beast” one respondent says, “if a company is established enough to be considered ‘an employer’ or has other staff who receive regular payment, then it should be illegal for them to take anyone on for unpaid work”.
Despite the sacrifices which some new entrants report to gain a foothold – multiple part-time work, low quality of life and debt – their commitment to the industry is marked by guts and determination albeit linked to an acceptance that even a part-time living may elude them in the long term.
Headlines from BECTU’s survey:
Time trying to get established: less than two years 32%; 2-4 years 35%; 5 plus years 24%
More than six unpaid engagements during the period 44%
More than six paid engagements during the period 55%
Work found through formal advertisement 16% (35% through word of mouth, 25% through private contact, 24% through ‘other’ channels).
Impact of unpaid work on attempts to secure paid work: neutral impact 39%; negative impact 36% positive impact 26%.
Should employers who break the law on the NMW be challenged: 95% say yes; 5% say no.
Support for measures to ban advertisements which don’t comply with NMW regulations: 72% said yes; 28% said no.
BECTU, interns, minimum wage, pay