Production of British TV dramas could be disrupted as part of a union dispute, after crew members objected to long hours and having to undertake unpaid work on sets.
The Bectu trade union says its members – who work behind the scenes on some of Britain’s biggest shows – are suffering burnout, low morale, and in many cases are unable to sustain a family life due to the industry’s expectation of long hours.
It is now balloting on new industry-wide terms and conditions, with the union leadership urging members to reject the latest proposals on the basis they are not generous enough.
The production companies claim that the UK’s booming television drama market – which encompasses everything from Netflix’s The Crown to low-budget BBC children’s shows – would be unable to shoulder the burden of the increased costs. They have even warned that production of some shows could be shut down if a new deal is not reached.
Rather than focusing on headline pay, the dispute is more about working conditions and long hours in an industry that relies heavily on freelance employees.
A common complaint among crew on TV shows is that so-called “prep and wrap” time is often unpaid. This means staff working in departments such as art, makeup, and set construction often turn up before the cameras start rolling then head home well after the filming is finished – all for little or no extra pay.
Pact, the trade organization that represents the TV production companies, claims it has already offered new terms including reducing the standard working day from 11 to 10 hours, introducing double pay for bank holiday work and providing additional payments for departments that time need to prepare and pack up after a shoot.
The TV production companies claim they cannot afford to offer even more generous terms to staff without losing work to other countries or seeing fewer commissions from British broadcasters.
Pact’s deputy chief executive, Max Rumney, said the union is playing a “dangerous game”, adding: “Financial modeling now being done by producers makes clear many productions will not be shot in the UK under the increased costs from Bectu’s alternative proposals – damaging a production ecosystem that has made the UK one of the best places in the world to make television.”
Negotiations broke down earlier this year, with Bectu’s leadership giving notice to end the existing agreement by September 1. If a new deal is not struck before that date then every British TV drama production company will be able to offer and strike its own employment terms with individual employees.
Television production in the UK is currently coping with an enormous shortage of skilled employees, with everything from makeup departments to accountants who manage budgets. The cost of making shows is increasing rapidly, while at the same time trained crew are in high demand and able to demand more generous pay packages than in the past.
Philippa Childs, the head of Bectu, said her union, which is a division of the Prospect trade union, was uncomfortable with the warnings issued by the production companies.
“Pact has had six months to get around the table and provide a revised offer that is clear in its interpretation and negotiate on points of disagreement with a view to reaching agreement.
“Bectu remains committed to reaching a negotiated settlement and we call upon the members of Pact to get back to the table and refrain from unhelpful public statements whilst we seek to find a way through.”