Charlotte Bence looks back on how the trade union Equity has fought low paid and unpaid work in the entertainment industries since 2014 – and its plans to extend its campaign in the future.

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Photo credit: Hoxton Hall on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

In 2014 Equity launched its Professionally Made, Professionally Paid campaign. This represented the bringing together and expansion of the work we had done over the years on tackling low paid and unpaid work in the industries we work in. The campaign has been chiefly focused on fringe theatre – productions or venues that sit outside the main collective agreements we have across commercial, subsidised and West End theatre, and where terms and conditions of employment often require serious improvement.

Since 2014, the work we have done in encouraging employers to, at the very least, honour statutory minima such as the National Minimum Wage and holiday pay entitlements (while also supporting members to enforce their rights to these minima when working on contracts that have failed to honour them) has brought over £3m into the pockets of Equity members and their fellow professionals. This is no small achievement and we are proud of the work we have done so far – proud of the contribution we have made to the wider conversations happening in our industries about what good terms and conditions look like, and how paying people for the work they do is a vital part of ensuring that performers and creative workers can access long-term, fulfilling careers in their chosen professions.

This is not to say that achieving the National Minimum Wage should be the limit of our aspirations – far from it. Over the four years Professionally Made, Professionally Paid has existed, we have worked with employers to improve the rates of pay they offer as their companies and productions grow. We are clear that our members and their fellow professionals deserve to be paid far in excess of statutory minima. But the reality of the industries we work in – with the continual pressures of funding, misunderstandings about employment status, and proliferation of so-called ‘opportunities’ – mean there are real challenges in securing even these most basic of workers’ rights. Ultimately, this campaign is an ongoing process, not a one-off event.  

Beyond the M25

So far, so good – but there is still a lot of work to do. While we have been successful in securing better pay in some sectors of the fringe, in the main this success has largely (though not exclusively) happened in London. There’s a vibrant and growing fringe scene beyond the M25 whose performers and creative workers deserve fair pay just as much their counterparts in the South East. A chunk of the responsibility for delivering that lies with the union, working in partnership with our members through their branches to expose and, where necessary, pressurise the serial exploiters who continue to ignore their legal and moral obligations.

In an interview with The Observer in August last year, Equity’s President Maureen Beattie said: “I want people to be frightened of us, to be a bit scared of Equity”. In that spirit, perhaps it’s time for Equity to be a little more combative with those serial exploiters, wherever they may be found in the UK. A recent survey of Equity members who have worked on an Equity Fringe Agreement contract showed that there is an appetite among our members for more public facing, audience engagement work – exposing employers who fail to pay proper rates, who fail to honour legal rights and whose audiences would have no idea that the professionals whose work they enjoy on a regular basis are not paid properly for the work they do or treated with dignity by the venues their ticket purchases are supporting.

Immersive theatre

It’s also time for Professionally Made, Professionally Paid to expand beyond the ‘traditional’ fringe. We’ve already made some good progress in improving contracts of employment with some engagers in Immersive Theatre, but a recent meeting for Equity members and other professionals who specialise in immersive work revealed quite how much work we’ve still got to do. Issues of low pay, of poor health and safety, and of flagrant disregard for workers’ rights are all too common, and our new members’ network for immersive theatre will work on tackling these problems across the sector.

Another important campaign focus will be the terms and conditions of creative team members. Last year, we worked alongside SDUK to achieve significant pay rises of at least 21.6% for directors working on Equity collective agreements with the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre. We need to build on that success across live performance for both directors and designers, including those working in the fringe. Our creative team committee, and their relationships with director and designer trade organisations, will be central to this work.  

We’ll soon be re-launching Professionally Made, Professionally Paid with new materials and updated guidance, ensuring that members have easy access to information about their rights at work and how the union can help enforce them. We’ll be tackling serial exploiters and offering many more ways for members to get involved in the work we’re doing. Together, we can and we will tackle the problem of exploitation and low pay in our industries – and the more of us there are working on this problem, the quicker we’ll get there.

Charlotte Bence is Industrial Organiser: Independent Theatre and Low/No Pay at Equity.
Tw: @EquityLPNP

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