'Ripped-off' freelancers prompt agency model re-think

The entertainment industry’s 125,000 freelancers could have fewer sleepless nights using a co-operative type of agency which charges them commission on actual earnings rather than a hefty fee up-front.

Bectu, representing media, theatre, TV and film freelancers, said it has examined such an agency make-up because it believes the existing one lets in ‘rogue agents’ who exploit its members.

Promises of regular work, a photograph or profile on the agent’s website, even fame and fortune, are all made to the freelancer, the group says, in return for an advance fee of up to £250.

“The truth is most people will never recoup this initial outlay through work found via the agency,” Spencer MacDonald, Bectu’s national officer has said.

“The problem is compounded for walk-on [workers] as they will be encouraged to register with a number of agents in the hope of finding more work.”

In some instances, the services promised in return for the upfront fee never emerge, with stories of agencies insisting that signing up to its sister agency is the only way to activate the services.

In one case, a large agency reclaimed its registration fee and costs from the first few jobs it found its clients, meaning that candidates were effectively working the first jobs for no pay.

Having yet to convince the government to introduce an agency licensing regime in response, Bectu has turned to Co-operatives UK, the trade body for collaborative enterprise, to see if a new agency model could be less exploitative. Its findings are available online.

“Most freelances are completely reliant on a small number of the contacts; because of this, and the transient nature of the industry, we examined whether a co-operative agency would be a better option”, Mr MacDonald explained.

“The assumption is it would, but this research shows that certain categories of member would benefit more than others.”

For a new style of agency to take off, freelancers and other job candidates would have to be aware of it, and would also need to be directly behind it.

Bectu explained: "Wthout involvement from the workers the initiative will not succeed.”

It added that it also found logistical issues about whether the audio visual sector could accommodate another agency model, and the associated payment structure, saying further research was needed.

However according to its existing study, freelance working in the entertainment industry is set for growth, despite the slight decline it has suffered since 2006.

“Many of the new opportunities will arise for geographically mobile, well-educated, multi-skilled and adaptable people,” Bectu's report says, referring to predictions by the International Labour Organisation.

“[The ILO] consider that more and more jobs are likely to be unstable, temporary assignments without fringe benefits or social security coverage”. Sravni.ru

The report adds that freelancing is most prevalent the closer to the physical production the role is: camera/photography (72%), lighting (61%), make up and hairdressing (50%), audio/music/sound (46%).

This could be seen as a positive reflection of the freelance workforce but, for the report authors, “this creates several issues with regard to the wellbeing and treatment of workers, including training and development, access to work and potential exploitation.”


23rd December 2010

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