One of the parts of the Apple TV+ executive interview that sparked the most comments on social media was the discussion about global production and the fear that a successful WGA strike might increase costs across the globe with other local unions and trade organizations.
While that is certainly a concern, it also opens up a larger discussion about the often difficult working conditions for crew and other creatives working in countries without a robust union presence. It’s not just that the lack of a union tends to mean a lower pay scale for local trades as the reporter has learnt from talking to workers in recent days, it also makes it much easier to delay checks, refuse to pay overtime or ensure there are safe working conditions on set.
When Raffi R. who requested anonymity, worked on the crew of a major streaming television project earlier this year, he was excited by the prospect of multiple weeks of guaranteed work on a major Hollywood production. But the experience turned out to be a bittersweet one for him, he worked several weeks without a contract and when he did receive it however, he discovered the production company that hired him refused to pay for overtime that he should have received before he was given his paperwork. “I was happy to put in the time, this was work I love and the experience of working on a big show hopefully meant that I will get more work in the future,” he said during a Zoom call this week. “But it makes me angry to know that I didn’t get the money I earned simply because they can keep it from me,” said Raffi R. a Hungarian tradesman
Raffi’s experience is not a unique one and the problems span a number of different countries and productions. In Malta, Matthew Maggi told a very similar story:
“A year ago, I worked on a Netflix production in Italy, which is yet to be released, with Hollywood stars. The local hires worked without actual physical contracts, despite the fact that some crew had specifically asked for them, in order to know all the details of the conditions they were working under,” said Matthew Maggi of his experiences to the Times Of Malta
I consistently objected to such unfair practices. For that, I faced severe unspecified consequences.
Those crews also told stories of other Hollywood productions demanding that they work more than the normal 12-hour shooting day, without getting paid for the extra hours worked. It was either comply or be shown the door until someone more desperate to work on film productions took their place.
As America’s studios and streamers increasingly shift productions overseas – often in order to save money – the local crew are complaining about uncertain work conditions, erratic pay, and troubling safety issues.
While the working conditions and guidelines vary from country to country, those places that don’t have a unionized industry presence seem to have a consistent series of problems. There can be few restraints on the number of hours worked and even when there are contracts in place with local crews, they are routinely ignored. Pay can be delayed for weeks, often attributed to “paperwork delays” or other unnamed difficulties. Meals are skipped or workers are not allowed to eat until their shift ends.
“Safety is also a frequent concern, especially from workers assigned to secondary units, which often face less oversight than the primary set. “I don’t think they necessarily plan on allowing dangerous conditions,” said one stunt person in Thailand. “But the pressure is on, to get the shots done and move on. We’re doing things in a way that is going to lead to someone being severely injured. I hope not killed. But you can only play Russian Roulette so often with people’s lives.”
These problems are not a new issue in Hollywood’s global productions. In 2021, UNI Global Union, which represents 20 million film, TV, and arts workers worldwide, released a report recounting the many problems faced by global production personnel. The study recommended minimum standards be set for film and TV workers worldwide, including adequate daily and weekly rest time, meal breaks, and health care.
One consistent theme I’ve heard from workers unhappy with working conditions is that they aren’t necessarily in favor of seeing their local production scene embrace unionization. In part because many local governments have a very strong anti-union stance. This means that workers attempting to organize face pushback on both employer and political fronts. “Unions aren’t the answer,” said another crew member located in Hungary. Working conditions would improve immensely if local producers would just set some minimum work guidelines and stick to them.
“I often hear that we don’t need a union because the country’s industry is small and that closeness provides peer pressure which reinforces safety and adequate pay,” said the crew member. “The reality is that yes, it’s a small scene here. But that means that you can’t afford to say no, even if someone is taking advantage of you. Peer pressure really means you can’t afford to be seen as a troublemaker if you hope to be hired in the future.”
The reluctance to go public with complaints can make it much more difficult to accurately assess the relative safety of a set when a serious accident does take place. A fire stunt mishap on the set of Gladiator 2 in Morocco left six crew members burned with what Paramount later described as “non-life threatening injuries” on June 8th. No other details of the accident have been made public and aside from a statement released just after the accident, the studio and production companies have declined to comment further.
But despite many Hollywood productions using locations in Morocco in recent years, there have been ongoing complaints from local crews about working conditions.
There’s no way to know if the accident on Gladiator 2 was just an unfortunate set mishap or an indication of a deeper ongoing problem. The reporter recently spoke with someone from the Moroccan Union of Dramatic Arts professionals (SMPAD), who declined to discuss that specific accident. The reporter was told in the background that safety concerns on the set had been passed on to the organization. Given the organization’s lack of influence in the local industry and the Moroccan government’s stated desire to ensure the country is “production friendly,” it seems unlikely that outsiders will ever have a sense of what might have happened on the set.
These problems are still off the radar for most of the people in Hollywood, even those working on some of these non-union sets, and they aren’t likely to be covered by the local press, in part because most of these countries have fledgling entertainment industries with little or no local entertainment industry press outlets.
These are the challenges that face performers, crew, and other trade professionals in many countries.
Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Virginia Van Zandt
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