Peter Jackson is now claiming that film workers can’t be represented by a union because they can’t be employees.
According to today’s Dom Post:
Jackson has said MEAA wants a union-negotiated collective agreement covering all performers. Yesterday he told The Dominion Post a collective contract was “absolutely not” being considered and would be illegal under New Zealand law because actors here are self-employed contractors, not employees as in Australia.
If film crews were hired as employees, with a contractual promise of ongoing employment, there would be no film industry, he said. “It’s an industry built on short-term work opportunities, with a finite time limit.”
That’s simply untrue. There are plenty of provisions to employ workers on fixed-term employment agreements. It happens all the time when people are employed to cover maternity leave or for seasonal work such as fruit-picking or freezing works work. There just needs to be a legal reason. And a project with a limited duration is a perfectly legal reason.
So the question is why make workers independent contractors when they could be fixed-term employees?
That’s a question Daveo answered quite well in a comment yesterday:
When the MEAA talk about the New Zealand contract they are talking about the situation where people that would usually be employees covered by employment law (minimum wage, right to challenge dismissal etc) are hired as “independent contractors”.
Independent contractors are considered to be one-person businesses engaged in a contract with the producers. the relationship is similar to that you might have with a plumber you call in to fix a leak – you’re not the employer, rather you get a quote for the whole job and then they do it for that price and if you’re not happy with the job you break the contract.
This means the employment relationship is considered to be a contract that falls under the commerce act rather than under employment law.
This may be a suitable circumstance for hiring a plumber (in which both parties have similar negotiating power when the contract is created, such as you and your plumber) but there is no way an individual film worker has the ability to negotiate a fair contract with a multi-million dollar producer in that the cost of losing the contract for the worker is significantly greater than the cost of not hiring that individual worker is to the producer (the former risks losing their livelihood the other only risks having to find another contractor).
As such many film workers in the small NZ film market end up working contracts that would be below legal minimum standards if they were deemed employment agreements but don’t have employment law to protect them.
A union draws together the negotiating power of individual workers (and, in this case, international stars) to provide a balance to the power of the producers in order to achieve a more balanced outcome in the form of a collective agreement. In short, the union members’ risk is still the loss of their livelyhood but so too is the producers as there are no other “contractors” to do the work.
What we are seeing here is Peter Jackson and other film producers trying to stop this collective process because it threatens their monopoly on bargaining power.
Jackson’s misrepresentation of employment law is being echoed by many employers in the film industry. It’s disgraceful that after years of pushing their workforce into contracting they are now claiming their hands are tied by the very situation they’ve engineered. But then again the first instinct of all bullies is to blame their victims.