Visual effects (VFX) workers exploited


BARE necessities are missing for visual effects (VFX) workers at MPC, says BECTU.

‘The Moving Picture Company appears to encapsulate everything that is wrong with employment in UK VFX in microcosm,’ says the media and entertainment union. In a large-scale survey of people who have worked at London’s Moving Picture Company (MPC), conducted in the week leading up to the UK premiere of Jungle Book, BECTU has found a workforce, both past and present, that has serious concerns about the company’s coercive working culture, with widespread complaints from world-class VFX artists about pressures to work excessive unpaid overtime.

In late 2015, BECTU started actively recruiting at MPC, which provided VFX services on Jungle Book. In campaigning for union recognition, members were taken aback by management’s hostility to this move; recruitment literature was removed and discussion about the union was banned in staff forums.

Thankfully, part of the company’s attempts to keep the union out resulted in small improvements to management attitudes towards their staff, but, as BECTU’s survey shows, significant concerns remain. In particular, members were conscious of unfair pressure resulting from the company’s culture of short-term contracts.

MPC has an employee-profile that dramatically contradicts UK Screen’s claims that ‘91% of the UK VFX workforce have a permanent contract.’ Short-term contracts increase workplace pressures. Instead, MPC appears to have an overwhelming preference for short-term contracts, with a surprising number of individual respondents (in free-text comments) making a direct link between this and the climate of pressure from managers, particularly on unpaid overtime.

Significant numbers of staff were prepared to say that:

• MPC is not interested in a fair dialogue with independently-minded employees

• they have little faith in the ‘Crew Forum’ as a means of resolving problems fairly (current employees were significantly sceptical)

• work-life balance for VFX artists at MPC is often very bad.

There were widespread fears around:

• refusing to work unpaid overtime

• raising legitimate grievances with management

• management finding out about individuals’ BECTU membership.

There was a significant number of respondents who complained of ‘unwelcome pressure’ or feeling harassed by colleagues/management, and an even larger number of respondents who said that they knew of colleagues who had experienced such pressure.

A very clear majority of the respondents who knew about unwelcome pressure believed that reporting such behaviour would be frowned upon (in many cases because management were the ones behaving badly).

Paul Evans, BECTU’s national official supporting VFX workers, said: ‘These results are very disturbing and we hope that MPC will agree to work with us on a full independent survey on this subject so that it can be dealt with properly. The VFX sector is now a central part of the UK film industry.

‘It is astonishing that most survey respondents were frightened that MPC would find out that they are members of a trade union, and that there was a widespread fear of raising concerns, reporting unwelcome pressure and asking for a responsive management.

‘MPC appears to encapsulate everything that is wrong with employment in UK VFX in microcosm – particularly the way the business is structured to pressure people into working long hours without overtime pay.

‘In a few clear cases, respondents reported direct bullying and intimidation from managers. If the UK VFX industry is to retain the talent that it needs to survive and grow, it needs to be a race to the top and not to the bottom. We need London to lose its reputation for excessive unpaid overtime, and this forms part of BECTU’s wider campaign to ensure that everyone in the film industry is paid for all of the hours that they work.’

What do survey respondents say? Some of the more printable quotes from individual respondents include:

‘I was made to feel guilty for leaving at 9.30pm by my manager.’

‘I stopped working in film for a few years after this experience (working at MPC). It took me a while to want to go back to film again.’

‘I felt pressure to work longer hours or that I might not get renewed for a longer contract.’

‘This is all about the pressure applied to get people to work for free. You were always made very aware that if you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t get a new contract at the end of your current one. At contract time you were always made to feel that you weren’t very good and they were doing you a favour by offering you a new contract.

But they weren’t going to offer you any more money because they’re doing you a favour, because you’re not very good. Of course now I realise this is just their modus operandi to a) destroy people’s confidence so they don’t look around elsewhere and b) to keep your rate as low as possible.’

‘… when I was there, there was a huge fear culture where staff were afraid to raise any issues with anyone. I’m guessing the culture came from the top down.’

‘… we need a minimum of twelve hours between shifts and no more than 14 days straight working. We need paid overtime and scheduling based on 40hr weeks not 80-100 hour weeks.’

Paul Evans continued: ‘It’s time that MPC dropped their overt hostility to a workforce with independent representation and allowed BECTU to recruit openly in the building. This is the twenty-first century. Employers shouldn’t be allowing some of the most skilled talent in the industry to believe that they will damage their careers if they make reasonable requests for work-life balance.’

The union has tried to establish a working relationship with MPC following a series of campaigns to improve working conditions for union members, and for the wider workforce at MPC.

BECTU has found MPC’s management unresponsive, and the union has agreed to a call from members to investigate the depth of this problem in the wider sector, but focussing initially on MPC London because the company has figured very heavily in complaints received by the union.

Throughout 2015 and early 2016, the union’s huge increase in VFX membership is believed to have been kick-started by an outburst of online anger in response to a Variety magazine article, where MPC claimed that valuing their staff is central to their business strategy.

BECTU noted: ‘The survey is the best that the union could do without the co-operation of the company. The questions were structured to yield valuable results in spite of these biases and it’s interesting to note that over half of the responses were not from BECTU members.

‘It remains the union’s position that we would gladly co-operate with employers on a project to research this matter in an independent and professional way. However, the employers have not been willing to engage in any kind of constructive dialogue around this issue.’