Hundreds of workers in the factual television industry are ending 2022 a little bit richer as a result of a class action that concluded with payouts ranging from $300 to more than $8,000.
The lawsuit was filed by Cavalluzzo LLP in 2018 on behalf of people who worked at Cineflix between 2016 and 2021 for unpaid overtime, vacation and holiday pay. A $2.5-million settlement agreement with Cineflix was reached in 2021. Cavalluzzo lawyers who worked on the file say about 368 people shared in the settlement.
The lawsuit coincided with a nine-year campaign by CWA Canada and IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) to improve pay and work conditions in the only part of the film and television industry in Canada not covered by a collective agreement. The lawsuit could have changed that exception. The terms of the settlement gave Cineflix the option to sign a collective agreement that had been negotiated between its top executives and factual industry workers and Cavalluzzo lawyers. Instead, Cineflix opted to pay $1.5 million more to claimants to avoid the collective agreement.
While a collective agreement in the factual (or ‘reality TV’) industry would have been a first in Canadian TV history, people involved in the campaign say their work and the lawsuit have benefited workers in other ways.
“The big difference now is that nearly everyone is put on production company payroll and not on individual contracts, which means they’re covered by the Employment Standards Act,” says Norma Mendoza, a long-time producer and production supervisor. “That means things like overtime and holiday pay. That is a huge shift.”
The arbitrary nature of individual contracts and concern for safety on set is what led many factual workers to seek a union back in 2013. They turned to the Canadian Media Guild, the largest Local of CWA Canada. More than 400 people joined the Fairness in Factual TV campaign. In 2016, the group printed a much-used guide to the industry, listing current rates and other tips. It was one of the few ways factual workers could find out what to expect in pay and hours.
“Back then, people didn’t think they could talk about their low rates and long, long hours,” says Denise O’Connell, one of the campaign’s first organizers. “There was a fear of being labelled a whiner and put on a no-hire list.”
“Now people are talking to each other and realizing they’re not alone. They’re feeling more empowered and less exploited. We have educated people about how they’re employed and what’s in their contracts.” She credits Anna Bourque – an experienced story editor and screenwriter who put her career on hold by being the ‘representative claimant’ in the lawsuit.
Mendoza concurs, saying the campaign and the publicity about the legal case has equipped people to know what questions to ask about such things as length of the work day, travel fees and safety protections.
O’Connell says the lawsuit sent a clear message to production companies, too. “They understand their responsibility to keep people safe and be more transparent about hours and pay.”
But Mendoza says that pay rates are still lagging behind where they should be, especially in post-production, which she says are what they were seven years ago. She advises anyone about to sign a contract to ask what’s the highest range in the budget for the job you’re about to do, and negotiate. She advises people new to the industry to ask if the rate being offered is the standard across the industry.
Both O’Connell and Mendoza say they still field many queries from workers in factual through the campaign’s Facebook group. The same is true of organizers with IATSE, which joined forces with CWA Canada on the campaign in 2019.
Mendoza says there will always be strength in numbers and a union contract in the industry would ensure gains are made in a permanent way.
“The problems aren’t going away,” Mendoza says. “It will be up to workers in the future to decide what they want to do to improve their work conditions.”
(Lise Lareau is a former president of the Canadian Media Guild [2000-2010] and a co-ordinator on the Fairness in Factual Campaign from 2016 to 2021. She now teaches a course about media and labour at York University in Toronto.)