Media guild organizing for order in 'Wild West' of reality TV

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Most viewers know reality TV is misnamed: lines are scripted; scenes are edited.

Less known is the reality of working conditions for those who create these shows. Workers are often misclassified -- and this can be dangerous.

Workers in reality TV shows and documentaries, also known as "unscripted" or "factual" television, often work in unsafe and unhealthy environments, contributing to professional and personal drama that can rival the action on the shows they create.

And, for now, it's legal.

The Canadian Media Guild (CMG) has been working to organize factual television and movie industry workers for four years. The all-media union represents workers across the country at such places as CBC, The Canadian Press, Agence France-Presse (AFP), TVO and more recently, VICE Canada. It also represents freelancers. It wants to organize workers in factual programming -- a segment of the entertainment industry many call "the Wild West" -- so they have a collective voice and can bargain with employers.

"Workers in this industry have been flying under the radar for a long time," said campaign organizer Lise Lareau. There's no specific union for them, and they have little legal protection.

The film and television industry is exempt from some parts of The Employment Standards Act. These exemptions include limits on the number of hours worked in a day or week and the amount of time off between shifts. Factual television is also unique, said Lareau, because when it emerged nearly two decades ago, a result of writers' strikes and an influx of new channels that needed programming, no one thought it would stick around this long -- or be so successful.

Reality shows like Survivior, Big Brother Canada and The Amazing Race dominate the most-watched TV lists.

Workers in factual television are often misclassified. They are often hired as independent contractors and not as employees. This means they don't have the same rights as employees, including the right to paid overtime or vacation days, strict safety legislation or the right to unionize.

The Ontario government's Changing Workplaces Review, released on Tuesday, recommends the Ministry of Labour make misclassification a priority enforcement issue. It also says reviewing sector-specific exemptions should be a priority.

Standard contracts needed

The CMG also wants to create a standard agreement that many production companies can use as a model, said Lareau. This agreement would benefit the companies too, she said, by helping them know how much to budget for payroll.

There's interest from the industry, but change will take time. "I'm not naïve," said Lareau. "I don't think people working in this industry are going to be classified as employees tomorrow, and then have an immediate right to unionization."

But these workers need it -- not only for their own safety, but also because their working conditions clearly demonstrate the dangers of a gig economy, said Denise O'Connell, a former factual TV worker who first alerted Lareau to factual workers' need for a union.

"Two or three part-time jobs doesn't always add up to a full-time job," she said, noting that looking for jobs is also a full-time job. "It either adds up to less than a full-time job, or more than a full-time job."

Few standards exist in this industry dominated by contract work. Workers are often paid a daily rate, but these vary from company to company. Contracts range from days to weeks or months; hours of work are also erratic, changing with little warning. Contracts may be extended -- or terminated -- with little notice.

One editor with more than five years' experience in the industry told rabble.ca they were once given an hour-and-a-half notice their contract was ending -- six months before the original end date. (This editor spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of losing their job.) It's a common industry joke, they said, that someone only becomes a "real" television worker once they've been laid off. There may not be severance pay.

"You're constantly walking on eggshells making sure you don't piss off the wrong person," said O'Connell.

But uncertain working conditions create serious pressure. Savings or home ownership are seen as luxuries. Workdays can stretch from 12 to 16 hours or longer, causing physical exhaustion. Viruses spread quickly in open-concept production offices. Tight deadlines mean workers feel obligated to come into work while unwell, a pressure increased by the lack of paid sick days. Staying home may keep them and their coworkers healthy, but it also causes them to lose money.

Amanda Terfloth worked in post-production and later producing in factual television for eight years, often taking temporary jobs to fill the gaps between contracts. She rarely qualified for employment insurance, and had to resort to using her credit card to buy groceries. She said she often made less than $29,000 a year. One year, she lost $1,700 when she contracted whooping cough -- Terfloth was in her late 20s at the time and unaware her immunization had expired. She estimated that she didn't crack $20,000 that year.

Difficult places to work, harder to leave

Even when workers are physically healthy, their workplaces could put them at risk. In more than a decade working in factual television, O'Connell does not recall being on a show that had a medic on set. She worked on home renovation shows, but because she didn't appear on camera, she didn't have steel-toed boots, helmets or protective eyewear. "There was more emphasis put on taking your shoes off at the door to make sure you weren't tracking dirt through the homeowners' place," she says.

Current workers fear speaking out about poor working conditions could cost them their jobs. They -- and production companies -- know many people are willing to work for less, or free. O'Connell and Terfloth said they only felt comfortable speaking about their experiences because the industry no longer pays their bills. Terfloth has left altogether. She works at The Better Way Alliance, researching employers throughout Ontario who treat their employees well and provide them with needed benefits like paid sick days. She said she got involved with the organization, a group of businesses committed to treating employees fairly, partly because of her experiences working in the factual TV industry. O'Connell produces multimedia content for a bank, but still picks up the occasional freelance producing job. "I love the creative work," she said, noting that, in her opinion, most people who work in the industry do so because they love it. "We love what we do. We just hate the fact that our working conditions are such crap that we can't do it properly."

Both declined to name the specific shows where they worked or their former employers.

Current workers may often contemplate leaving, but limited finances make options like further education seem unattainable. It can be hard to explain how their skills translate to work outside of media. The current editor rabble.ca spoke to said they have a "media" and "non-media" resume. Terfloth said that even though she was often re-hired by companies, a sign she was a good worker, many people would look at her resume and assume she couldn't hold down a job.

"The further I got into it in regards to it being my work experience, the harder it was to get work outside of it," she said.

Combatting the 'cool' factor

Broadcasters and production companies alike face mounting pressures: decreased demand for Canadian content; smaller budgets; a rapidly changing industry. But they hold a powerful, unquantifiable quantity: people consider the industry to be "cool." Many people want the few jobs available, and this can make workers feel they must be grateful for whatever they can get, even if it's a low-paying, unsafe, precarious gig that could harm their physical and mental health or relationships.

"People assume that if it's something that is really cool to do, or if it offers up fame or recognition, than it should be harder for you to make a living. I don't think that that's the case," said O'Connell.

Changing that mindset will take a while, as will helping media workers break out of the idea that they need to put themselves at risk for the perfect shot, or sacrifice their health for their work. But there are signs of hope. The people rabble.ca spoke to said once they learned about being misclassified as independent contractors and what their rights were, they would educate their colleagues. Since the CMG started its campaign, there's been more openness across the industry about payments and working conditions; a private Facebook group dedicated to the campaign has more than 1,000 members.

O'Connell said she hopes to create a sustainable industry, where people can both find employment and mentor others so the work can continue.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of Amanda Terfloth's work in factual television and to correct the description of a recommendation made by Ontario's Changing Workplaces Review.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.