Monday, 2 July 2012

Running to Stand Still: Why TV freelancers still get a raw deal

By Will Strauss

Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now. “Broadcast’s Freelancer Survey paints a gloomy picture, with some parts of the freelance community’s working life showing a clear decline in quality.”

So begins Broadcast’s analysis of how television treats self-employed people, the essential individuals that make up the majority of those working in production. The article  ‘I can’t do this much longer’ makes for fairly disturbing reading.

Freelancers are overworked, underpaid and generally miffed about their professional lives. So much so that, of the 656 people surveyed, half plan to leave TV within the next 10 years. Which, allowing for the odd retirement, is a pretty damning statistic.

Unfortunately, having read the article (and being the cynic that I am) I started to doubt the findings. Not out of any disrespect for the writer or the methodology but because I’d conducted a similar piece of research for Broadcast back in 2005. And so much has happened to improve the lives of freelancers since then that surely their lives must now be better? In order to compare and contrast I took a trip down amnesia lane.

The summer of 2005 was glorious. The weather was good, England’s cricketers beat Australia to win the Ashes for the first time in donkey’s years and, despite the terrorist attacks on London, the world was a generally a good place to be: unless you worked as a freelancer in television.

At that time the big issues were unpaid work experience, holiday pay and – surprise, surprise - long hours. I remember very vividly the pressure group TVwrap taking a petition to Downing Street about the first issue. They argued that the government should act to ensure that TV employers follow DTI law and pay national minimum wage to people on work experience.

It was concerted, well organised and raised an important issue. Best of all, it was successful.

After that initial ‘revolution’, things looked to have improved. The producer’s alliance Pact addressed holiday issues and Bectu followed through with institutional change and the introduced several major freelance recognition agreements including a wide-ranging deal with the BBC.

It was during this turbulent period that I conducted my research. My survey canvassed the opinions of 1,071 freelancers across all disciplines. Back then, nearly half (44%) had seen their usual daily/weekly rate go down or stay the same in the previous three years and only 38% had holiday pay added to their rate (as is required by employment law when working on a contract basis as a non-tradesman).

With the improvements that were made following the TVwrap campaign and the new Pact/Bectu agreements now in place – and generally adhered to – I figured that, surely, freelancers must be better off in 2012 than they were back then? Not so.

When it comes to unpaid work experience, everyone is now better educated about it thanks to TVwrap. But it still happens. And while holiday pay is still mandatory (depending on certain circumstances) and PACT companies and the BBC add holiday pay automatically, not everyone that is entitled to it, gets it.

At the same time, the elephant in the room still remains. The hours are still too long. And, in fact, they’re getting longer. And this is continuing to be a serious health and safety issue.

In 2005 almost half (45%) of all freelancers worked more than the recommended 48-hour week. That figure is now over 50%. Seven years ago 10% of freelancers did more than 60 hours a week. In 2012 it’s 21% of the workforce. That is a major increase.

Long hours leads to tiredness and tiredness leads to disillusionment. Or, worse case scenario, to accidents in (and away from) the workplace.

So, why have things not improved? In my opinion the problems start much further up the television food chain. There are three major issues: 1) There’s even less money available for making television – but there is a requirement to produce more of it. 2) Sometimes quality is sacrificed to achieve that quantity 3) There are still too many people trying to get into television.

These problems were there in 2005 and, unfortunately, they still haven’t been rectified. Some of the symptoms have. But these fundamental issues remain.

So, as commissioning budgets continue to fall (but producers are expected to conjure up more on-screen minutes), the freelance workforce is expected to mirror that trend by working longer hours for the same amount of money (effectively taking a pay cut). Or cheaper alternatives are found. And, parallel to that, working in TV is still viewed as a glamorous career.

The overall result? Supply outweighs demand and some employers will pay less (or ask for more hours, for the same rate) because they can. Even at lower rates and for longer hours, the positions will be filled. Sometimes by less experienced, but hugely keen, people. Sometimes by experienced people who simply have to take the work at lower rates because a precedent has been set. As the legend goes: “if I don’t do it, someone else will.”

It’s probably fair to say that if longer hours received equal remuneration, the problems would be diminished (even if, by European employment law, things would still be the same).

As it stands, that isn’t going to happen. The only options for freelancers are: be brave enough to say no to a job if the hours or the money isn’t right and hope that everyone else does the same (but who can afford to do that?); accept that TV has changed and find a way to make it work: or find a new career.

None of which are ideal.

I just hope that in another seven years time I’ll be looking back at another of Broadcast’s Freelancer Surveys and not be drawing the same conclusions. 

Will Strauss [] is a Leeds-based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to various TV industry publications including Broadcast.