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Actors’ Inequity

Written By: - Date published: 10:43 am, February 14th, 2011 - 31 comments
Categories: Unions, workers' rights - Tags: ,

Another piece of union-bashing has been quietly implemented, this one directed at Actors’ Equity (the union that took on the film and TV industry over its failure to negotiate a minimum agreement).

In the past when people from overseas wished to work in New Zealand in film and television, including everything from actors and camera people to directors and producers, the production was required to get a letter of non-objection from the relevant local craft body before a work visa would be granted. The burden of proof lay on the production company to prove the talent they were importing was truly required. If the organisation would not issue a non-objection letter the matter would be discussed between the parties to see if it could be resolved and, if no agreement could be reached and the production wanted to continue with that person, the matter ultimately went to the Minister of Immigration for a final decision.

Obviously this practice originated to prevent New Zealand being flooded with overseas workers when a suitable local could do the job. In an industry as small as ours and with employment practices that can only be described as Dickensian, this was one of the few effective tools the guilds possessed.

Standard stuff. Reasonable stuff. The process has worked well for years.

However, as of 7 February an applicant seeking a film and TV work visa need only advise the relevant organisation of who they want to bring in and why. The onus is now on industry organisation to object to an application if they so choose. The applicant must still provide evidence that the person they are seeking the work visa for cannot be sourced here. And if the organisation chooses to object but the parties cannot reach some understanding the issue still goes to the Minister for a decision.

The Immigration NZ website makes the new guidelines clear:

“What has changed?
New forms and guides have been introduced (with effect from 7 February 2011), to make it clear that the intention of the instructions is a ‘silent approval’ process for guild/union involvement. The onus is on an industry guild or union to object to a visa application (they have three working days to do so after they receive the information from the employer, production company or promoter), rather than on the employer, production company or promoter to seek prior guild or union approval through a letter of non-objection.

A minor amendment has also been made to the instructions to clarify that applicants can rely on one of the evidentiary requirements listed below, and do not need to meet all three:
• That the applicant is of international distinction or merit, or particular ethnic significance, or is manifestly essential to the presentation or production, or
• that the applicant’s employment does not put at risk the employment of New Zealand entertainers or professionals in equivalent work unless the wider benefits to be obtained from the applicant’s employment outweigh the loss of job opportunities for New Zealanders, or
• that appropriate consideration has been given to employing available New Zealand entertainers or professionals.”

These are virtually identical to the old criteria the organisations asked the production to provide. However, note that minor ‘do not need to meet all three’ rider. In the past organisations could apply any of these against an applicant. Now the bar has been significantly lowered. The key change, of course, is that the assumption is that the work visa should be granted.

Why do this? Once again, from the Immigration NZ site:

“Why have these changes been made?
The process for entertainers and crew has been clarified to ensure that the instructions’ wording is properly adhered to. Before this change, the process involved the employers, production companies or promoters seeking guild approval (via a letter of non-objection) prior to the applicant lodging their visa application with Immigration New Zealand. However, the intention of the instructions is a ‘silent approval’ process under which there is no obligation to attach a letter of support to a visa application.”

I’m not sure why Blinglish is so keen to rub policy wonks from the public service because it’s those wonks who’ve made up some neat revisionist ‘policy’ wording. Effectively what’s being said here is that we had a silent approval process all along – come one, come all, bring us your overseas labour, we don’t give a damn about the local industry. This is further proof that our government really doesn’t give a crap about creating jobs, otherwise they would not change the rules, stripping one of the key protections available to our local film and TV industry.

The power of the industry organisations to hinder free importation of talent has been a sore point amongst some for years. In a recent media column John Drinnan, one of only a few local media journalists not afraid to ask hard questions, notes a controversy involving an Actors’ Equity objection to ‘star’ Vincent Gallo brought here to film a Steinlager ad. Vincent Gallo, you know, that actor that the beer company were desperate to use because his world-famous name and face would sell their product. Yeah, I’d never heard of him either. So there would have already been employers whining to a receptive Ministers Coleman and Finlayson (since Finlayson oversees much of the industry through his Arts hat) that the guilds were holding too much power.

But that’s not really why this happened. Prior to last year the government has been M.I.A. when it comes to the film and TV industry. Sure, they might have been aware of the non-objection rule but it was small fish compared to some of the other institutions they needed to tear down.

So what changed? The Hobbit mess of course. The Hobbit debacle was a slap in the face to the government, who got severely trousered first by a tiny union who refused to give in to the bullying that they were under and then by an overseas studio who rode the government all the way to the bank. The rules have changed because the government, most likely Mr Brownlee who shouldered much of the Hobbit egg, wanted to punish Actors’ Equity.

Only one problem, the government couldn’t neuter just Equity, so they’ve given the entire industry the regulatory equivalent of a vasectomy. From now on industry guilds wanting to protect their patch face an uphill battle with the Minister of Immigration, standing at the end, ready to rubber stamp any production that comes along.

It is my understanding, and I’m happy to be proven wrong here, that the industry was not consulted about this change. Those who’ve talked to me about this tell me the rule change was a fait accompli ever before the guilds were informed about the change.

Clearly no one in government cared about (or even considered?) the economic impact on the organisations, most of whom charged for processing the applications. This includes SPADA (the producer’s/employer’s body) which used to charge hundreds of dollars for processing a non-objection letter letter. In many cases it was overseas productions or productions with overseas money who paid for the letter so our industry is now losing out on bringing in foreign dollars.

There appears to be no way the organisations can still charge for processing an application now. SPADA have already adapted and are running a subtle blackmail line on their website – ‘we won’t object if you pay us’. But any smart production would be better to save their pennies – SPADA and the other organisations will very quickly learn there is nothing to be gained in objecting unless they are utterly sure they won’t be overruled by the Minister. Most of these organisations are small and the drop in income they’re likely to face will severely hurt them. And once the money starts drying up they’ll be less likely to be able to process applications, meaning less objections and an easier even time for overseas workers wanting access. But of course, this is precisely what the National government wants – weaker worker advocates.

31 comments on “Actors’ Inequity ”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    I can see this completely destroying our film industry. Instead of our actors being hired foreign multi-nationals will come in complete with their own actors and there’s now nothing that can stand in their way.

  2. Tiger Mountain 2

    I can see a few Lord Jackson supporters of the recent past getting burnt by this ‘swifty’ legislative change too.

    And no, you need not blame NZ Actors Equity. If anyone is to be blamed apart from producers and cinema companies 101: standard profiteering, it is the short black swilling middle classes at the likes of Public Address that spitefully withdrew support from AE and comprehensively brown nosed certain industry figures. The memory of the shameful Labour Day “Hobbitt” love ins endures.

    Ultimately you do what other unions have had to do and get your shit together. Form a modern united pan NZ film industry union affiliated to a large professional union such as the EPMU. Craft guilds are from another century given the scale of the industry in this country.

    • Tigger 2.1

      Problems with that nice idea TM.

      Few of the organisations are unions – Actors’ Equity and the NZ Writers Guild are two of the only ones that are unions.

      There is a fanatic anti-union sentiment amongst many of the organisations, fostered by the producers. So forget the Director’s Guild becoming a union.

      The contracting basis most workers in the industry are engaged under makes it difficult to collectively bargain. And without collective bargaining you don’t have a carrot to organise around, nor a stick to warn the employers with.

      The Employment Contracts Act was very, very nasty to the film and TV industry. It’s never recovered and without some contracting based legislation it never will.

      • Tiger Mountain 2.1.1

        I don’t like being a defeatist but you are probably right Tigger. I was talking theoretically really, but ultimately organisation and legislation are the answer. Have talked to people in the industry before, during and after ‘Hobbitt’-line producers and techs, normally articulate fun types that just have a total personality change when you mention AE or unions.

        Apparently films and commercials are ‘special’, unions are not needed, it is all based on personal relationships, everyone knows who the good guys and the arseholes are, we sort everything out ourselves, we like being contractors. This of course from people with regular work in Auckland.
        Of course the reality is often precarious employment and exploitation. Have a family member currently involved and was on the perhipery of AE in 80s, 90s, amazing the same faces still around.

  3. tsmithfield 3

    We’re getting rid of duties and tariffs on most things. Why not labour as well?

    • Colonial Viper 3.1

      Because a free market for labour is stupid and highly disadvantageous for workers and for fair local wage levels. Great if you are a big corporate though.

      Mind you, a freer labour market with Australia has helped 600,000 Kiwis move their skills out of NZ to help the Australian economy so I guess its not all bad.

      The other area where it is stupid to have a free market is that of financial capital.

      • tsmithfield 3.1.1

        There are already natural barriers to entry for foreign actors. For instance, I assume that foreign actors have to be put up in flash digs, have their air-fares paid etc, whereas local actors are likely not to have anywhere near as much in cost.

        So, if it is correct that local actors have a natural advantage in terms of cost, then why do they need more protection? If they are so hopeless they can’t win a role with all those advantages, then they shouldn’t be professional actors IMO.

        • Colonial Viper 3.1.1.1

          Sorry mate, I don’t care about getting in the odd headlining Colin Firth or Johnny Depp here, we are talking about replacing hundreds of NZ extras, technicians and labourers with cheap foreign workers.

          Who will probably not be put up in lakeside condos.

          So, if it is correct that local actors have a natural advantage in terms of cost, then why do they need more protection?

          ??? I guess it depends if you can be bothered developing an independent local entertainment industry, or if you want to make do as a minor service arm of an international industry.

          • tsmithfield 3.1.1.1.1

            What I said still holds true.

            Even imported extras, technicians etc would still have more associated costs than local people. This helps offset any wage differential. If local people still can’t compete, then obviously they are too expensive.

            • Colonial Viper 3.1.1.1.1.1

              Good of you to champion the hollowing out of the NZ employment market mate and your backing of NAT’s wage suppression tactics on your friends, neighbours and extended family.

              Your attitude reminds me of why 600,000 NZ born Kiwis have decided to move to Australia permanently. People can tell when they are not being valued, and they leave.

              Oz, where the pay is higher, they are heavily unionised and compete just fine as an entertainment industry. Funny that. They clearly don’t have the bottom of the barrel attitude of NZ business ‘leaders’.

              • tsmithfield

                Stop being so dramatic.

                I strongly suspect that the extra costs associated with bringing in outside people will make it uneconomic to do so. Therefore, I doubt that any NZ workers will miss out because they are too expensive. If the producers do bring anyone in it will be because there is no-one suitable in NZ to do the job.

                Time will tell I guess. If you can point to any examples of NZ people being displaced I will grovel and admit I was wrong.

                • Colonial Viper

                  If you can point to any examples of NZ people being displaced I will grovel and admit I was wrong.

                  Best estimates are that 600,000 NZ born Kiwis are now living and working in Australia.

                  You want more evidence? Now its true that these NZ’ers haven’t been displaced by foreign workers (although if you ask around there seem to be a lot of recent immigrants working on farms and building sites for not very much).

                  But it is evidence of a hollowed out employment market. Choice for any up and coming young professional is stark. Get out of NZ is at the top of the list. 1/4 of our graduates are already gone.

                  • tsmithfield

                    What is that to do with the point we are arguing?

                    I thought it was about mysterious foreign budget priced technicians/actors etc displacing our people here in NZ, not about our people leaving to Australia.

                    Anyway, its never going to happen while there is are viable and reputable people here in NZ. Heck, thats half the reason they decided to make the film here in the first place, because we do have that infrastructure at a good price. There would be so many costs and risks associated with bringing people from overseas that it just not going to happen.

                    If anyone is going to be brought in it will be because the required set of attributes is not available in NZ.

            • orange whip? 3.1.1.1.1.2

              If local people still can’t compete, then obviously they are too expensive.

              …or overseas ones are too cheap.

              Oh sorry, for a moment I forgot that the holy market is infallible and must be obeyed.

  4. Colonial Viper 4

    What’s the bet that Peter Jackson personally contributed to the new policy.

  5. Lanthanide 5

    Sounds like a nice platform for Winston – protecting NZ film workers.

  6. prism 6

    I don’t think that Peter Jackson’s name should be maligned on suspicion. This is such a backward step, I would think that it has been initiated by the NACTS who it is known need some plumbing, a tap on the head. They don’t care about NZ being a modern nation with ideas and creativity spawning new business. The creative industry needs regular work and so build up huge experience. Who are the Immigration mandarins that would come up with this? Who asked them to change something that worked OK?

    But the horizons of the ding(h)y political sailors is so low they would wipe this.
    Their backgrounds are from farming and service provision like legals eg David Bennett. They have run away from any original ideas for new manufacturing and exporting business.

  7. Tigger 7

    Whoops, forgot to sign this piece. For the record, it’s mine.

  8. Nick C 8

    Seriously? What a fucking stupid policy, I cant believe it has taken National so long to repeal this!

    On principle why the hell should a union get to decide who I spend my money employing for my production? Once I decide to employ someone who is a member of a union, let the union negotiate their terms and conditions or indeed a collective agreement for all the workers in the industry, sure. But just handing legal control to unions over employment in the entire industry.. i can’t even find the words!

    Any benefits are based on believing the economic falacy that immigration leads to higher unemployment, which is debunked here: http://amateurassetallocator.com/2009/02/11/immigration-causes-unemployment-and-other-economic-fallacies/

    • Colonial Viper 8.1

      Yep, undermine the local industry and local workers just as we are developing to stand on our own two feet. Mind you the big corporates and the big players like Jackson will love having more leverage over local workers.

      Your immigration red herring is useless as well, as these foreign workers are not immigrating to NZ, they are just taking a short term job.

      On principle why the hell should a union get to decide who I spend my money employing for my production?

      Just because you hold the capital does not mean you hold the power, yeah? Unions increase workers’ power over capital, and that needs to happen even more.

      • Nick C 8.1.1

        “Your immigration red herring is useless as well as these foreign workers are not immigrating to NZ, they are just taking a short term job.”

        No it’s not, the fact that are only here short term is completely immaterial (think of the long term is just a series of short terms). It’s to do with the fact that when people come here; short term or long term, they dont just work in jobs, they also create them. Read the link before you make such stupid comments.

        “Just because you hold the capital does not mean you hold the power”

        It should mean that you hold the power over the capital, and you should be free to make mutually beneficial, consentual agreements with other workers.

        • Colonial Viper 8.1.1.1

          It should mean that you hold the power over the capital, and you should be free to make mutually beneficial, consentual agreements with other workers.

          Ahhh, but should you also have the power to make agreements which disadvantage disempowered and hungry workers, but maximises your return on capital? Well?

          No it’s not, the fact that are only here short term is completely immaterial (think of the long term is just a series of short terms).

          This is idiotic.

          A temporary seasonal worker who is in NZ for 3 months is not going to buy and renovate a house, purchase furniture, buy school uniforms or get a membership at the gym.

          Learn a lesson from the Vietnam war why don’t you. Having 3 different soldiers in Vietnam for a year each does not give you the same experience as having the same soldier there for 3 years. As this, and the above example re: buying and furnishing a house shows, the long term is not simply a series of short terms added up together 🙄

          It’s to do with the fact that when people come here; short term or long term, they dont just work in jobs, they also create them. Read the link before you make such stupid comments.

          Frak you asshat.

          OK then, let’s have a look at what your precious link actually says.

          The best refutation is historical: Why did the U.S. have extremely low unemployment throughout the 19th century when immigration numbers were much, much higher than they are today? Because the increased aggregate demand created by the immigrants created at least as many (if not more) jobs than they took.

          The writer assigned an answer: more immigrants more aggregate demand. No reasoning, no facts, no logic, no historical economic context. No analysis of the type, background, skills of the immigrants. They just said A is because of B. And then you say that somehow, that ‘conclusion’ drawn from 19th century USA is directly relevant to 21st century New Zealand 😯

          Why are you wasting our time with this quality of shit house ‘reference’?

        • SPC 8.1.1.2

          The USA did not have free trade in the 19th C. So its immigrants had to produce their consumption, thus no employment.unemployment issue.

          Your links relevance in a free trade global market world is zero.

    • The Voice of Reason 8.2

      Got some bad news for you, Nick. Unions, and other interested parties, are routinely asked for their opinion on bringing in overseas workers all the time.

      Whenever an employer wants to bring in overseas labour, a check is done by Immigration on whether the work could be done by Kiwi residents and, if allowed, minimum pay rates that do not undermine the locals must be paid. Unless you are working for the liar, sorry, er, master story teller, Peter Jackson.

      • Tigger 8.2.1

        And it isn’t just a union thing, it was the entire industry that possessed this power, including the employer’s guild – SPADA. But hey Nick, don’t let the facts get in the way of you rushing to bash the unions over the head…

    • Jum 8.3

      But, you’re happy with this government handing legal control over workers to employers in all industry…

  9. Jeez …we could do with some fresh local talent on the screen though. It’s like we have A-listers Paquin, Neill, Curtis, Urban and then Z-listers with nothing in between

    Shavaughn on Shorty St anyone ?…anyone ? or how about the pencarrow/sandfly point/pencarrow/sandfly point guy as a Norse God…nah ?…Me neither.

    So exactly who is our equivalent of Ian McKellern that we cold sub him in and still bank on box office clout to get the bums on seats ? Maybe we could put the ubiquitous Rhys Darby in a smock with a repoed farmers day santa parade beard fixed in place with some number 8 wire and we’d all be buy into it.

    Look ,I’m all for suspending disbelief but fuck it, when it comes to star power to prop up a big budget movie we’re a bit thin on the ground

    and RIP Frank Whitten… Good on ya mate ! She’s a hard road to riches and fame treading the Kiwiland boards eh ? Better luck in the next life. I’ll sink a speights to your memory…cheers

    • Mark 9.1

      I agree that there is a major gap between A-listers and the rest of New Zealand actors, but I think that’s exactly the issue at hand. If producers/employers continue to hire foreign actors to do the ‘big jobs’ then how are we ever going to produce an acting community of high calibre? Everyone is either going overseas or being re-used, as per your example; pencarrow/sandfly point guy. However, on THAT note I have to say that Jared Turner (he has a name) is a competent, talented, and well respected actor within the acting community. He’s been around for a while, but it’s only now that he’s starting to gain momentum and get some decent parts in the public eye. That’s because the industry is (albeit slowly) beginning to bank on New Zealand actors. This new practice is going to take us a step back from becoming a truly independent film industry.

      And yes, R.I.P. Frank Whitten.

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