As the coronavirus outbreak escalates in the U.K., union leaders and lawyers are calling for enhanced support for freelance film and TV workers, who are projected to fall at the sharpest edges of a crisis that could decimate the independent production sector if prolonged.
With 800 positive cases and a death toll of 10 at press time, the U.K. trails a number of hard-hit European countries, such as Italy, which is battling more than 15,000 infections and has reported over 1,000 deaths.
However, a robust production sector — BFI’s 2019 figures show a total production spend of $4.7 billion across both film and TV — is set to become exposed as studios such as Disney begin to shut down shoots on big-budget productions such as “The Little Mermaid,” which was set to film at London’s Pinewood this month.
Philippa Childs, head of U.K. entertainment union Bectu, tells Variety, “Because the industry is booming and there is a lot of filming going on, the concern for freelancers is that they are going to be in a situation where there’s a delay and they don’t get paid now itself, or if things are pushed into the future at short notice.”
“Under those circumstances, there is no safety net for freelancers or the type of benefits system where employees get sick days. For freelancers it’s a hand-to-mouth existence,” says Childs.
Bectu, which represents more than 40,000 staff, contract and freelance workers in the U.K.’s media and entertainment industries, released a survey this week calling for input from freelancers set to be affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. So far, it has received more than 1,000 responses.
The union is considering lobbying the government around such issues as sick pay covering self-isolation periods, job protection for those who are self-isolating and general support that would help the sector withstand a downturn in production.
“We’re telling the industry that they need to give people a financial push if they need to postpone or cancel work, and we’re telling the treasury that support systems such as low-interest loans and support for mortgages are things they could be doing,” explains Childs.
Bectu is advising members to try and negotiate longer cancellation periods in their contracts. “But it’s like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted,” says Childs, highlighting that, for many, such strategies will only safeguard future work as opposed to current contracts.
The fundamental issue, however, is that the nature of freelance contracts provides insufficient protection — a troubling reality magnified in a global pandemic.
“There really aren’t safeguards in place,” says Yvonne Gallagher, an employment lawyer with London law firm Harbottle & Lewis, which serves the local entertainment industry.
“Freelancers won’t always have the greatest commercial leverage around what the terms are, so it’s a bit trite to [tell them to] ensure a contract provides a sensible notice period or payments and protections if, by no fault of their own, they can’t work (such as the current period),” she says.
“The reality is those terms often won’t be negotiable except for key individuals who are hugely in demand and have the pull to get their own terms rather than the producer or studio’s terms.”
There is a financial benefit, however, for both employers and wider society to implement greater protection for the freelancer workforce, highlights Gallagher.
“Organizations need to be aware that people who suffer financially from isolating themselves will be less likely to do so, and that increases risk of people coming into workplaces when they really shouldn’t.”
Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Film and TV Charity, a 96-year-old organization that provides a range of support services to the industry including a 24/7 help line, is also stepping up. The organization’s financial support — the charity distributed £1.3m ($1.6 million) in 2018/19 — often used for individuals experiencing personal or professionals roadblocks, could be applied to those impacted by the outbreak.
While contributions from the fund aren’t intended to substitute lost wages, it could, for example, help a freelancer who is about to lose their house because they can’t pay the mortgage.
“People are in such a range of situations that it’s a very complex process,” says CEO Alex Pumfrey. “There’s a collective but ongoing effort for everyone to work out their position on this, though it’s not feasible for there to be a universal approach.”
One learning that’s already emerging, however, is a dire need for a sophisticated support system for the freelance workforce, which constitutes around 60% of the U.K. entertainment industry, according to Bectu.
“Whatever comes out of it at the end, we can’t continue like this,” says union boss Childs. “There needs to be more security for freelancers. There has to be a safety net they can rely on, rather than crisis management funds.”