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.