As the US writers and actors’ strike continues, three quarters of UK film and TV workers are out of a job

Bectu film and TV union
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In mid-July, American actors joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on the picket line in the first industry-wide walkout for 63 years. This effectively brought the US film and TV business to a standstill. However, the Screen Actors Guild’s (SAG-AFTRA) industrial action is also having a massive knock-on effect on British industry workers.

In the US, there’s no end to the joint strike in sight. Hollywood’s major studios and streamers have made no contract overtures to the striking actors since they walked off the job in July. That’s according to the performers’ chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, who negotiates on behalf of the 160,000 actors who belong to SAG-AFTRA.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Bectu (the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union) has surveyed almost 4000 freelance film and TV workers. This included ‘behind-the-scenes’ crew such as stylists, background artists, and camera operators. The results of the research outline the stark effects the US strike action has had on their livelihoods.

Film and TV workers in jeopardy

All told, three quarters of the freelancers surveyed were out of work at the time. This is highly significant in an industry that relies heavily on temporary contracts and intermittent workers, who will often work on a single production at a time. This is then followed by indefinite periods with no money coming in before the next job starts up.

Worries about financial security affected 9 in 10 of the survey respondents. 8 in 10 said the US strikes had a direct impact on their employment. 6 in 10 also reported that their work issues were impacting their mental health.

One respondent lamented:

I lost my job while pregnant and I don’t qualify for maternity pay either. The loss of my job has put great stress and anxiety on my first pregnancy. I am so disheartened by the industry and how disposable we are to productions. We have not heard anything from the production since our last day of work in July.

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Among other results, the Bectu survey also found that:

  • 35% of respondents are struggling with household bills.
  • Almost 25% couldn’t see themselves remaining in the industry for five years.
  • 15% had taken on debt in order to pay bills.
  • 10% were forced to consider moving back in with family.

‘Falling through the cracks’

To make matters worse, many of the freelancers the UK film and TV industry relies on were only just starting to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like other PAYE freelancers or newly self-employed workers, many of them were not eligible for furlough payments.

Similarly, the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme was based on income from the year 2018-2019. This was a massive disadvantage for film and TV workers, whose intermittent employment meant that their income from one year alone wasn’t representative of their average situation.

Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said:

This is a workforce that has already faced incredible hardship throughout and following the pandemic, and has now been hit by a second crisis in just a few years. Many of our members have been laid off from productions under ‘force majeure’ clauses with little notice or pay, and with 6 in 10 respondents telling us they are struggling with their mental health, it’s clear the impact also extends beyond financial insecurity.

As one survey respondent echoed these sentiments. They said:

After being one of the forgotten many who fell through the cracks during the pandemic and received absolutely no financial support from the government, to now be in an even worse financial position is mind blowing and infuriating. I’ve spent so long surviving instead of thriving, and I’m tired.

Solidarity with the US strike

Despite the effects on her industry, Childs nevertheless offered solidarity to her striking US counterparts. She stated that:

This is a fight with many of the same employers who frequently undervalue crew in the UK, and therefore our solidarity with US actors and writers is important for raising standards domestically and globally. However, there is no getting around the very real and devastating impact on UK workers.

Instead, the union leader focused her ire where it belonged, highlighting the bosses’ abdication of their responsibility towards the workers, and the complete lack of government support for an industry it supposedly cherishes. She closed by saying:

The government is vocal about the huge cultural and economic value of the creative industries; it must put its money where its mouth is and look after those who work in the sector. Likewise urgent industry collaboration and commitment from employers to support the freelance workforce is critical if we want to UK to remain a cultural hub.

The film and TV industries across the world are international by their very nature. It’s little wonder that the strikes in America have had such a profound effect on the UK. However, given no recourse by an uncaring industry, British workers are now left hoping for a swift resolution to the Hollywood disputes – for everyone’s sake.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/NickErizo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, resized to 1910*1000.

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