Reality TV workers need collective rights: media union

Photo: Michael Cory/flickr

Ontario's Changing Workplaces Review doesn't do enough to recommend protections for the collective rights of workers in the reality TV industry, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) says.

The all-media union has been trying to organize these workers for years. As reported previously by rabble.ca, workers in reality TV or documentaries, also called factual TV, are paid at inconsistent intervals and rates, lack benefits and union representation, and work in unsafe and competitive environments.

Many work as "independent contractors." This means they're not entitled to certain benefits under the Employment Standards Act (ESA).

The union hoped the report would recommend the government narrow who can be defined as an "independent contractor" so more people can be defined as "employees." It also wanted it to recommend the government to remove the exemptions the film and TV industry has under the ESA.

The final report, released on May 23, said the Ministry of Labour should make misclassification of workers a priority enforcement issue. It further recommends that "dependent contractors" be included as employees in the ESA. (They are already mentioned in the Labour Relations Act.)  It also said industry exemptions should be reviewed, but didn't provide specific guidelines about exemptions for the film and TV industry.

The government is scheduled to publically respond to the report in the next few days.

The report gave the union part of what it wanted: recommendations that could lead to greater individual rights. But it didn't "do anything that really helps our collective ability to represent people. That's where it's very disappointing," said Lise Lareau, who has been organizing CMG's campaign for factual TV workers.

Lareau said she's optimistic the government will support adding "dependent contractors" to those defined as employees in the ESA. Dependent contractors are people who depend on a small number of employers for their income. This change could impact thousands of Ontario workers, making it an easier concept for the general public to understand.

This includes many people who work in reality TV. But depending on how long contracts are, workers may only work for a couple companies a year.

"If (workers) depend on one or two pots, (they) become a dependent contractor," she said.

But Lareau's disappointed the recommendations don't directly address the exemption of the TV and film industry. The report recommends the government make reviewing existing exemptions a priority, but doesn't single out the TV and film industry for review. The report does identify other exemptions, particularly those that apply to residential building janitors, superintendents and caretakers, and pharmacists and information technology professionals. The report acknowledges the difficult working conditions of reality TV production, even describing it as the "Wild West" -- language the CMG has used.

The report recommends the government conduct an inquiry with various groups involved in the arts and creative industries to see what changes could be beneficial.

"In other words, they're parking any really major change to the sector until there's a further inquiry, which, let's face it, there probably never will be," said Lareau.

The report also highlights the need for sector-wide collective bargaining in the arts and creative industries. These industries "provide the main historic examples faced by contingent workers in our economy" it says, which means a sector-wide agreement in these industries could help people in other industries.

Factual TV workers need this agreement the most, said Lareau. They're "doubly suffering," she said. People who work in scripted television often have collective bargaining agreements and unions, even though the industry is exempt from the ESA. Factual workers don't have union protection -- making them especially vulnerable in an exempt industry.

The guild will continue to raise the problems caused by the film and television industry exemption with the government, Lareau said.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Michael Cory/flickr

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