Thursday, 19 April 2018

Year end accounts

I am doing my end of tax year accounts which is an opportunity for reflecting on the new gig economy in what are the film industry's boom-times.

Of 177 days in 2017-18 I worked on:

6 Features

3 TV dramas

1 Documentary

2 Shorts

1 Pop video

3 Online Ads

This represents 14 different employers so I had 14 sets of start forms to complete, 14 sets of wage slips/invoices, p60's and p45s to keep on file and at least half of these jobs needed chasing to settle the invoices. Some got as far as a Letter Before Action. Despite the HRMC already reminding me to file my Self-Assessment, the employer's deadline for sending me p60's is 31 May. By then I could be stuck on location with all my papers at home.

For only 54 of those days did I sleep at home, let alone have a family meal or talk to anyone at breakfast. Most of my fuel and Costa receipts are before 07:00 and after 22:30. The 'typical' job with 47 weeks of 40 hours is 1880 hours a year. I worked, or rather got paid, for 2133 hours or 12.12 per day, reflecting that the basic movie day is always 12 hours. However not every production pays overtime but they still expect you to work. The work done pre-call and after wrap and a couple of hours on those one-day weekends sorting your petty cash never gets counted.

On just over half my jobs on the features and TV dramas I had employee status. However I find most producers want you to invoice as a self-employed person (independent contractor in the USA). As a self-employed person you get paid the same as an employee but lose all the benefits such as pension, maternity, unemployment, sickness, statutory holiday pay and various tax credits. You also then shoulder public liability and the overhead of insurance.  It's a commonly held fallacy that an employee can't take the deductions that the self-employed do, as if that's fair compensation.

I've noticed too that the accounting of holiday pay in my payslips is really opaque; some report it as separate line and some don't. I am noticing a trend that when a producer offers me a job and when the production office gets around to sending me start forms - often after I’ve started actual work - the rate we verbally agreed is inclusive any holiday pay, therefore conceding a substantial discount on what I expected to earn because, unlike a 'real' job, the holidays not taken are not put on my final payslip. Industry organisations like BECTU have agreed that statutory holiday should be compensated as an additional 12% of earnings because it is impractical for film crews to take paid leave. This issue can get cloudy because paid holiday is a statutory benefit for employees but not for the self-employed. When a job is in the real world is advertised in the Job Centre, the hourly rate or salary advertised is exclusive because it is paid time off.

But by doing this producers are effectively saying that for every £1 of the day rate we agreed, the rate is actually 89 pence because 11 pence makes up the additional 12% holiday pay instead of BECTU's position that for every £1 in pay there will be an additional 12 pence in holiday pay. When you calculate overtime this can make a big differenc that increases exponentially with time and half, double time and so on. A person making £100 per day for an 11 hour day / 55 hour week with holiday pay inclusive is only making pennies over NMW and losing £53 per week against holiday in addition.
I estimate that my self-employed rate would need to be 50% higher to compensate for lost employee benefits but parts of this business is in a race to the bottom. Many roles in my industry cannot be self-employed and producers have to pay employers' National Insurance stamps on top but where jobs are under six days, they can avoid it. Now working out what I might need to pay the DWP in top-up National Insurance is a cold towel job.

I took 21 days holiday when I had a window between ending one job and starting another. The job I came back to was the second-lowest hourly paid that year but it was five weeks work close to home. This was the only time I knew I had a job more than a week before it started. The timing didn't suit my partner's job or my kids' school so I took my holiday alone. These unsocial hours and their unpredictability, plus lots of travel to distant locations, plays havoc with keeping doctor and dentist appointments and getting a haircut, let alone attending parent-teacher meetings, school performances, family weddings, funerals and any semblance of normal life.

The plus side is that in a small way you occasionally make something lasting that you can be proud of, even if it was hell at the time. But more people have asked to hear my stories of working for legendary low-budget producers like Roger Corman than probably even saw an award-winning shoestring drama about Salvadorian refugees. That one I literally gave blood for when I crashed my car after blanking out from several 90+ hour weeks.

My main beef is the bureaucrats seem to have no idea that work like this exists, or otherwise their rules are meant to disenfranchise you. When you fill out forms for a disabled child's benefits they ask what is your annual income and how many hours a week you work, as if you will know a year in advance. The nightmare that is Working Family Tax Credit (which I would qualify for) and the holes that getting your estimates wrong can put you into will have to be another essay.

The biggest entertainment payroll company Sargent-Disc has alternately grim and hopeful data about the sustainability of my employment. The average wages in the entertainment industry per-hour are no better than national averages and entry-level are shockingly explotative, as I found for myself working on billion-pound cooking competition franchise at a rate that worked out less than National Minimum Wage. 
One runner reported to Televisual: “There are still companies offering work below NMW. Last year, I was offered £425 a week for a rotating six day week on location for a prime time BBC1 programme, which is well known for doing 16-17 hour days. It is getting beyond tedious going to interviews and finding this is what a company thinks is acceptable.”

The construction and props departments appear to offer good long term employment prospects for me. "Along with the transport department, they have the highest proportion of over 60s with a healthy 8% of the construction department in that age group." Overall though the pressure on wages is downwards. The situation at entry-level is dire and dominated by the Nathan Barleys. An industry report says: "Competition to break into the industry is so high that employers can offer low salaries knowing that a young person will take it. The only runners who can afford to progress are the ones bankrolled by wealthy parents. These subsidised runners are our future producers. In 10 years time posh kids will rule TV and output will be one dimensional.”

When I first started in this business, the older workers, all members of the late ACTT and NATKE, would annoy me with their closed shop, their clock-watching and threats of grievances and their long lunches in the pub. Now I am one of them I see their point!