The BECTU minimum wage debate

Posted March 21st, 2010 by Jess

Thanks to those Shooters who came to the BECTU debate on Thursday night.

Myself and producer Chris Jones debated with Martin Spence and Benetta Adamson from BECTU whether it was a good idea for young people to work unpaid on independent film shoots.

Quick bit of background for those that missed this issue rearing its head over the past few months – we recently did a poll of members to see what our policy should be towards taking these postings and found that the majority of you wanted them

However BECTU believe that this kind of unpaid work shouldn’t be allowed.  So we decided to meet up and have it out at a public debate.

What happened?

Well Chris Jones has done a very good account of the evening on his blog and BECTU have their own account here – not surprisingly a different take on it

My take on it? Well it was certainly a very heated evening with a free and frank exchange.


How BECTU see indie filmmakers?

How indie filmmakers see BECTU?

To move on, I think we probably have to agree to disagree about certain things:

– we have an opposing economic analysis of the causes and consequences of unpaid work.

– we don’t agree that films with not enough money to pay all the crew should therefore not be made.

– we both value protection for workers and choices for workers, but put them in a different priority order from each other.

The Good news is that we totally AGREE over some matters of principle:

– health and safety of crew and cast is paramount

– honesty and transparency are key to successful productions.

And, at the end of Thursday’s rather bruising debate, I think we had also agreed to a pragmatic pact which I’d sum up as follows:>

    There is a class of low budget productions, where the primary motive is not profit and where crew are responsibly treated, which BECTU are prepared to ignore in respect to minimum wage enforcement in order to focus on holding bigger productions where the primary motive is profit, to upholding the minimum wage.

Our joint interest with BECTU is in defining this class of productions clearly enough that we can all (producers, crew, BECTU and Shooting People administrators) distinguish between them and the productions that should be held to offering minimum wage.

I’m going to stick our first attempt at this definition in the next blog post – please give us your input to help shape this in a way that can work for both our producers and our crew.

Jess Search
Co-founder Shooting People

  1. Daniel Cormack

    I don’t see the problem with – for example – a micro-budget feature being made with the intention of being distributed and, hopefully, making a profit provided that there’s parity or at least transparency in cast / crew wages and that there is a profit-share arrangement in place. An extremely risky film or subject matter may only be able to raise a small amount of capital and therefore ask the cast and crew to all volunteer unpaid on a favoured nations basis, but with a profit-share. If people are particularly passionate about the importance or artistic value of the project then it will get made.

    However, to lock something in to not being able to make a profit is effectively denying it the chance of distribution and of reaching its intended audience. Perversely this would then deny the cast and crew on a profit-share the chance to make something back for their time and efforts.

    Martin Spence’s argument seems to be that a producer’s job is find the cash to pay everyone at a level determined by BECTU and any film that does not meet this threshold is not worth making and/or the producer has not done his job properly in fundraising. I disagree. A producer’s job is to ascertain the market value of a given film and then to make that film for less than than that market value. Just because a film has only a small or niche audience does not mean that it is worthless or that a cast / crew cannot be considered adult enough to weigh up a transparent proposition put forward by a producer and make their own informed decision on whether to share the risk / reward.

    I simply do not recognise this picture being painted by BECTU of a culture of uninsured low budget filmmaking rife with poor health and safety, malpractice and exploitation.

  2. rob speranza

    sounds like a reasonable compromise…but how will the distinction be made? Will we start to declare our primary ‘motive’ for the film’s production when advertising for a position?

  3. Janus Avivson

    I think it is very important to prepare a proper agreement regarding deferred payment and/or and agreement where people, who work on a production for no-money, would benefit in case when the product will make any money.
    Please kindly notice that, with electronic reproduction and distribution, making money from short and artistic films is more likely than ever before.
    What we should try to avoid is a situation when people work for nothing and one year later film makes money and everybody except the producer and director are deeply unhappy.
    I am actually a producer but I would hate to be in such a situation.
    So we should prepare a set of blueprints for agreements which will prevent such situations from happening.

  4. Charles Wood

    I am so glad that BECTU, like most of the media, are prpared to ignore my work. It gladdens my heart hugely.

    Perhaps I really am doing something worthwhile after all.


  5. Richard

    “There is a class of low budget productions, where the primary motive is not profit and where crew are responsibly treated, which BECTU are prepared to ignore in respect to minimum wage enforcement in order to focus on holding bigger productions where the primary motive is profit, to upholding the minimum wage.”
    Was that been worked out with Bectu, or is it what you, Chris and the other SP founders at the debate consider was agreed on? If so, it will be a huge step forward.

  6. Richard Dunkley

    I am now beginning to find aspects this debate sickening. I have just read a number of ‘no pay job opportunities’ on an industry site, for both stills and cinematography. It disgusts me that a publisher or film producer could expect someone to not only work for nothing, but have their own expensive equipment and cameras to be used. If you cannot even pay to hire the equipment, you have no right to be publishing or filmmaking, PERIOD. I just sold my car to finance a documentary and am giving rights to corporations for funding for another film. I always pay at least minimum wage, as it is an insult to expect work and skills for less.
    If you want free ‘collaboration’, do it with friends ( I do that too, because we know we will get a result from experience ), don’t advertise to total strangers. And ‘have you got a (free) script we can shoot’; what is that all about!!! Some people need to get real

  7. Alessio

    I don t accept to work for free, but of course I ve done it in the past.

    Today it seems to me that it s going far too much the request.

    Some time or I d say almost every time you read a post like this:

    Looking for experience DOP with his own RED to work on only expenses.

    Other times you read looking for a DOP to work on a film shot on RED, only expeses.

    My question is : if you don t have money to pay a DOP how are you going to pay the RED ?

    And the answer is that you really should know that the RED doesn t make your film succesfull as you think if then you work with no experience crew.

    If you are a student, make your film in super 8 or use a dv or any camera you can get for free. A red is 500 per day.

    Save money and hire a DOP a focus puller an art designer a make up 1 AD and so on…

  8. Stuart Pearce

    So label all your requirements as ‘volunteer’ requirements.
    From the governments own website:

    Your employment rights as a volunteer: Most volunteers don’t have a contract of employment and so don’t have the rights of an ordinary employee or worker. These include the right to a minimum wage, holiday and sick pay, and other statutory rights.
    Your employment rights
    If you volunteer, you’re normally told about this in a volunteer agreement. This is usually part of a set of documents, which includes a volunteer policy and voluntary work outlines, like a job description.
    The volunteer agreement should explain:
    what supervision and support you’ll get
    insurance cover
    equal opportunities
    how disagreements will be resolved
    Minimum age
    Many voluntary organisations give children volunteer work, provided they’re covered by the organisation’s insurance.
    However, in order to protect children from being exploited, the law limits what children under school leaving age can do (you are under school leaving age until the last Friday in June of the school year in which you turn 16). For example, if you are under 14 then you are not allowed to work for a profit-making organisation (this is true whether or not you are paid).
    Health and safety
    Under health and safety law, an organisation only has to have one paid employee to be an employer. If you’re volunteering for an employer, it must assess any risks to your health and safety and take steps to reduce them – just as if you were a paid employee.
    If there are different health and safety risks for volunteers than employees, then the protection you’re given should reflect this.

    Pay, expenses and training
    As a volunteer, you’ll generally be excluded from the National Minimum Wage and receive only basic expenses for your work. Expenses don’t count as wages, as they’re repaying you for costs you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t been volunteering. Normally expenses will be limited to money for travel and food/drink as well as repaying you for money you have spent (or will be spending) on things you need for your work.
    If you receive any benefits in kind they are likely to be limited to what you need while working such as food and drink and, if you are doing work away from home, accommodation. Training for your work may also be provided.
    If you receive any other payment or benefit in kind for volunteering, this may mean you are actually classed as an ‘ employee’ or a ‘worker’. These categories have a specific meaning and have particular employment rights associated with them – the article on employment status explains more.
    Examples of benefits that might mean you are classed as a ‘ worker’ include:
    receiving training that’s not directly relevant to your voluntary work
    receiving a fixed regular amount for ‘expenses’ that is more than you spend

    I’m not for a moment suggesting this should be a way of sidestepping the issue. I’m making the point that as soon as two parties begin to become entrenched in their positions both turn inward and then it’s a case of how can we get around something rather than how can we resolve the issue together.

    As for the whole minimum wage debate. I would suggest that BECTU focus their efforts on Producers and companies that have had a track record of generating income from their work. And unfortunately that does many established industry producers that still expect free labour

    As for the rest, unless BECTU want to kick this newly technology empowered and democratised industry back to the stone ages – I would suggest they leave well alone. Unless of course it is all about closing the shop to all but the select few who have access to government money and of course the well off.


  9. colin laidlaw

    Firstly thanks to Benetta for taking the time to set up this forum and thanks to herself, Jess, Martin and Chris for presenting last night’s gig.

    I operate as a freelance editor, producer, director, writer, and cinematographer… so pretty much everything and anything I can get my hands on.

    I would love to be paid for every job that I do, but I don’t, and I do this through my own choice.

    Essentially I will work for free to improve my skill set as an editor or cinematographer. Most of what I know has come from being self-taught and in this respect working for free is a great training ground for me. It also gives me the opportunities to build relationships with other filmmakers and has led into paid work.

    I only volunteer my services for free if the project fits into one of the following criteria.

    A) Am I learning – is the project giving me new exposure to a different camera, editing technique etc

    B) Is working on the project going to add to my profile or show reel.

    C) Does the production hold a good script and production value?

    D) Is this going to give me good contacts in the industry?

    If I can tick most of the boxes above, then I am happy to do the job for free.

    I do not believe that this ethos takes from the industry, but adds to it., as most of these films are made for festivals or for the web. It isn’t about money, it is about creativity. But what I do see on most productions is people, young and old, learning a craft and as long as they have the right ethos, they move towards paid work.

    However, more often than not I turn down projects because they do not match my criteria. This is generally because the script is awful or there is little production value, or I feel that the producers are being exploitative.

    I have carried this ethos with me from the days of being an assistant through to my own production company. What I recognise most is that the industry is changing so fast, that I want to keep working for free so that I am adaptable to change. If a job warrants being paid then I will only do it if I am paid or will say no.

    The future:

    My girlfriend’s 11 year old daughter can use Final Cut pro and handle a camera, this is where the competition in the industry is coming from and in a few years time she will be a force to be reckoned with. My point is, filmmaking is becoming so accessible now that anyone can make a film and how we view it is constantly changing, as new Internet channels spring up every day. This is a future and is one that is dominated by creativity. There is little money in it, apart from exceptions, because there is no advertising or fee. And I like the idea of being able to make the films I want without the constraint of television editorial or more importantly advertising editorial.

    I have seen in the industry blatant exploitation and welcome policy that tackles this. However, I do not want to see policy in place that stifles creativity, collaboration and hinders this new world media. The web has led the way with people producing freeware applications, film should be able to follow suit and produce free programming, is a good example of this future of media.

    So my policy with my own productions is. If I am being paid and the there is money left over from the cost of production then that money should be proportionally distributed to those that have helped me. Also, all members of the crew should be properly accredited and a copy of the material sent to them. Even if a CD is not produced then it is good policy to upload the film to a file-sharing site where they can download it.

    Just one last point.

    I think shooting people is a great resource of information and collaboration and is a bargain at £30 a year. I thank them and their members for the paid and unpaid work I have got from them over the last few years.

    I hope that when I am 80 I can still have the opportunity to work for free, because it will mean that I am still learning…. Though my bladder may not work so well.

    Thanks again Benetta for this forum. Having things out in the open leads to far greater things.

    Colin Laidlaw

  10. Brian

    I am very confused.
    Surely, if we stop films being made for profit, this sector of the British film industry will die.
    Who is going to invest in a film that does not intend to or, better yet, is not allowed to make a profit? I wouldn’t. Be honest, would you? No, of course not.

    If the only independent films that BECTU allows to be made (with any level of voluntary/collaborative labour involved) are those with no chance of ever being able/allowed to turn a profit, then all it will have achieved is to kill off the micro budget (and by this, I mean ‘no-budget’ really), British film. Surely, that is in no-ones interest.

    Now, call me crazy, but when I work on a project for FREE, I still want it to make money. I want the film to be a financial and critical success. I want the director and producer and writer, who have had the vision to make this movie, to be successful. It is a win-win situation for me. It’s a no brainer.
    As long as the terms of my collaboration have been clear from the start and I, as a consenting adult, am happy with those terms (whatever they may be), I am more than happy to take my reward by riding the hopeful wave of success that the film will have.

    Let me ask you this:
    Would you rather work for FREE on an Oscar winning movie or earn £500 a day on a TV commercial? I don’t believe there is one of you that wouldn’t jump up and down and say; “F*ck the money, I want the Oscar. I WANT THE OSCAR!”

    I rest my case.

  11. Tom Griffiths

    I must confess to taking umbrage at the jokey pictures you posted here – no I’m not devoid of a sense of humor but this sort debate is immensely serious for our livelihood and our artistic integrity. As we all know it’s a fine line we must tread between allowing ourselves to be exploited and misused on the hand and making sure we are able to make creative material. The problem however is not only about freedom to express your creative desires and produce work on low budgets without the constraints of union intervention it is also about how we get a foothold in the industry – if it was only an issue of the former and not the latter then perhaps I’d be more willing to condemn BECTU as some obstacle for creative expression but in truth the issue is about what people starting in the industry have to submit to in order to build reputations that may (or may not indeed) lead to fruitful careers down the line and as many of us know it is not simply of making the groovy independent films we’d like to be able to spend our careers making but the amount of unpaid or low paid or deferred paid work many people starting out have to do, much of which is awful, poorly conceived, second rate material. It is not always about choice – directors of self written little indies may think it thus but what about (and this where BECTU have a role to play) the boom ops, runners, 2nd camera assistants, make up artists etc that sign on to SOMEONE ELSES creative project simply to build up their CV and ‘contacts’? Much as I am a fan of auteur cinema we must remember that cinema is not made by a director (what ever the quality of their vision) alone. In reply to the comment above (mostly because it seems out of place – surely this was a conversation about INDEPENDENT not hollywood cinema?) I’d say – FUCK THE OSCAR and help me survive as a creative practitioner for as long as I can. I’m afraid daddy isn’t going to help me fund my shit film about a confused young middle class man who falls in love with a delicious american lady… hang on a minute…. I’m not interested in making that sort of dross anyway… We can’t sign on to BECTU’s stance overnight simply because it’s impractical for those of us starting out but we MUST rethink the culture drastically and we must do it soon.

  12. Stuart Pearce

    Posted on the BECTU site in response to Benetta (below)

    I’m afraid the ‘volunteering’ thing is a route that might necessarily be used by independent film-makers to continue to collaborate. After all ‘volunteering’ has a legal definition in UK Law and is supported by a set of guidelines and sample agreement forms on the website.

    Unless of course you want Volunteers to be paid minimum wage also.

    This industry is very difficult to get a foothold into. Comparisons to the US are completely pointless because the attitude and openness towards new independents is vastly different. The UK film industry is a closed shop. Public money gets shared out amongst the same ‘boys and girls club’ members year in year out. Nepotism is rife. Advances in Technology are levelling the playing field which along with collaboration has begun to allow those with good ideas but not much means to engage in an industry that has been restricted to the privileged for too long.

    Now comes along this debate. But it’s not a debate really. The reason I say that is your views of new independent producers is already entrenched as evidenced by your reply to my post.

    We’re all out to exploit and you seek to protect the exploited. I’ll let you in on something. The people that I engage with when seeking to collaborate are neither naive nor stupid. They know exactly what they’re getting into, and know exactly what they want out of it. They also know they haven’t got a snowballs chance in hell of getting any similar kind of position at any established companies so this is a route in.

    In fact the member that started all of this knew exactly this, and had the wherewithal to take the production company to court and get paid – despite having agreed to work as part of a collaboration. I don’t see any naiveté or fear there.

    Nobody goes into the film industry through necessity ie to put food on the table. Those poor people that are actually exploited day in day out in packing factories, cleaning offices, etc Absolutely BECTU needs to be there to support their rights for a fair and decent wage and to ensure no exploitation.

    The people seeking to join this industry are educated, savvy, articulate, well informed and know exactly what they want. There are no babes in wood here. So, if these people wish to engage in collaborative partnerships for no money to gain a foothold in a closed industry then who are you to stop them?


    Hi Stuart and welcome.

    It’s not a matter of sidestepping the issue; it’s more that it is quite impossible to distinguish the goodies from the baddies. I’d also strongly resist the notion that anyone (Shooting People or BECTU) is becoming entrenched – the debate last week and this forum give the lie to that.

    The “volunteering” thing doesn’t work, I’m afraid, otherwise everyone would be doing it. That’s what the London Dreams lot thought, but the fact is that anyone working on a film is given set time and tasks which would, in normal circumstances, make them eligible for the minimum wage. That’s why I think we need a formula to distinguish the genuine collaborations from the crooks who are simply looking for free labour.

    I would suggest that BECTU focus their efforts on Producers and companies that have had a track record of generating income from their work. And unfortunately that does include many established industry producers that still expect free labour

    They have done exactly that. The trouble is that one case is the tip of an iceberg of a lot of unreported cases where unpaid junior staff are too frightened to complain. What I would like to achieve is a code of practice which makes it quite clear what the deal is so that everyone, crew member, producer and website editor, knows that a job is kosher and ethical.

  13. Benetta Adamson

    Thanks (on behalf of the “enemy”) for that admirably well thought through post, Tom Griffiths – particularly given the fascist label which Charles Wood is pleased to attach by allusion on the bulletin this morning.

    The whole purpose of the BECTU proposal is to protect everyone – producer, collaborator and website editor. A great deal of what goes on in the indie film sector would technically breach the NMW act, and while no-one (and certainly not BECTU) wants to prevent genuinely collaborative work, there needs to be a way of differentiating between those projects and the projects which are quite clearly intended to make a profit and see the community as an endless source of free labour.

    A lot of the flak I’ve been attracting is centred around the notion that BECTU is acting with a protectionist motive and that the steps we are proposing would prevent the next generation coming through. My personal motive is precisely the opposite: the people no-one hears from are the new entrants who think that by working unpaid for a period of a few months they’ll find paid work and will be launched on their careers. Instead a couple of years down the line, they discover that all they’ve done is bankrupt themselves without getting any closer to paid work. As far as they’re concerned they’ve failed.

    BECTU’s “stance” is to try to make everyone consider carefully what they are offering and what they are being offered, and make that undertaking as transparent as possible for both sides. That really can do nothing except benefit everyone, by preventing the exploitative employers from disguising themselves as collaborators. They exist all over the place – some see free labour as a way of increasing their profits while others just haven’t thought through their collaborative project to make it fair to everyone.

    There are ways of creating a framework where unpaid collaboration is ethical and legal, but it will take some commitment from the community to achieve that. BECTU has offered to help develop that to avoid more cases like London Dreams coming to tribunal and level out the playing field a bit so that the independent community can flourish. No-one benefits from a financially unsustainable sector – certainly not a union organising in that same sector.

    I certainly have absolutely nothing to gain from any of this. I just have clear perspective that far from offering an open and free experience of filmmaking, many naive new entrants get seriously bruised by their attempts to “break in” to making films. It’s just that we rarely hear their voice.

  14. Ben’s Blog » Blog Archive » Bectu Brutae.

    […] Recently Jess Search and Chris Jones took on Bectu, the trade union keen to enforce all filmmakers to operate within the National Minimum Wage, in a public debate. Sadly I missed the event but you can read Jess’s summary of it by clicking here. […]

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