On 1st November 2018, RTE’s flagship current affairs programme Prime Time aired a report entitled Fear and Loathing in the Irish Film Industry, centred around allegations of bullying and intimidation on Irish film sets, and what was described as a long-standing problem of random pickets and protests at studio gates and on the sets of visiting productions. Footage shot at one such protest was striking. One effect of the blurring out of protestor faces was an increased emphasis on the placards they carried – “Irish Film Board Funding The Abuse of Workers”, “500 Million Of Irish Taxpayers Money And No Jobs”, and “Irish Film And Television Industry A Corporate Welfare System” (RTE 2018). Prime Time identified the “most visible grouping” within this protest movement as the Irish Film Workers Association (IFWA), an organisation that dates back to at least 2011 when it was known (somewhat ironically, as shall emerge) as the Irish Film Workers Forum (see Sheehy 2012).
Following the broadcast, a minor twitter storm erupted, underlining the allegations of IFWA intimidation. Some film workers directed anger at Richard Boyd Barrett, T.D., identified on the programme as the politician who had “legitimized” IFWA by arranging for them to contribute to a hearing on film industry working conditions carried out at the beginning of the year by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Culture (see Joint Committee, 2018, 2018a). IFWA’s appearance before the committee indeed seemed to have been an afterthought. The first of the two hearings, held on January 31 with contributors from established industry employer, labour and state bodies – Screen Producers Ireland (SPI), SIPTU, and the Irish Film Board respectively – had concluded without any indication of a further session (Joint Committee 2018). Yet two weeks later, a second hearing had been convened, with contributions from IFWA and the trade union GMB.
While it is not clear why the hearings were initiated in the first place, it seems apparent from the line of questioning during the opening hearing that the Committee had concerns about employment quality in the Irish industry. Committee Chairman and Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin underlined his support for State funding of the Irish industry but then went on to state that “there are undoubtedly problems in the sector”, suggesting that the industry’s model of “forced self-employment” could lead to labour power imbalances and exploitation, and an institutionalised model of precarious work. The standard industry legal and accounting structures were discussed, including the international practice of channelling financial, legal and employment contracts through special purpose vehicles (SPVs) – one-off companies incorporated to carry out production of a single project, then dissolved on its completion. It was noted that this structure leads to short term contracts of employment, depriving film workers from some of the normal entitlements enshrined in Irish employment legislation. It was suggested that the Film Board might convene an industry forum to address this and other issues, including training certification – to which Film Board chairman James Hickey readily agreed (ibid.).
Two weeks later, after Boyd-Barrett’s intervention, the second hearing was held. In contrast to the initial hearing, the second received widespread media coverage, owing to accusations from GMB and IFWA of “bullying and harassment” of workers, among other grievances (Libreri 2018). The industry was accused of operating working weeks of up to 66 hours, in breach of working time legislation. IFWA alleged that industry trainees were being abused, to the extent that the trainee provisions of the Section 481 tax credit legislation, along with its legislative obligation to provide “quality employment”, were being ignored. If true, these accusations would undermine the legal validity of the tax credit scheme itself – one of the most generous in the world, a production incentive that all Irish stakeholders (with the exception of IFWA alone) consider vital to the continuing functioning of the industry as currently constituted, both as an international production hub and a producer of increasingly sophisticated indigenous content.
The response from the wider body of film workers themselves was remarkable. During the spring and early summer months, a large number of workers representing most of the film grades came together to discuss and refute the claims of IFWA/GMB, possibly alarmed by IFWA’s criticisms of Section 481. Rather than unite under the banner of SIPTU – historically the industry’s most significant trade union, although in decline since its membership peak in the late 1990s – film workers chose instead to mobilise around a series of guilds, with some twenty new organisations forming under the umbrella of the Screen Guilds of Ireland (SGI). This potentially formidable new initiative mobilised workers to form occupation-specific guilds and encouraged them to respond to the Joint Committee, which received written submissions from at least five new guilds in time to consider their contribution before issuing their report, Development and Working Conditions in the Irish Film Industry, in July.
Most of these submissions rejected the claims around employment quality made by IFWA, with the guilds united in their claim that IFWA was not representative of the industry, and did not speak for the majority of film workers. Published in July, the Joint Committee report acknowledged the concerns about film worker precarity. Among its recommendations, it called on Government to “[seek] to make working arrangements more secure”, and on film companies to comply with labour law. It called on the Film Board to convene an industry forum with an independent chair, to “allow all stakeholders within the sector to meet and work together to develop mutually beneficial solutions for the industry” (Joint Committee 2018b, p3).
If this was an attempt to encourage the more traditional employer, labour and state bodies to break bread with the upstart IFWA and their GMB allies, it soon foundered. Following its Oireachtas appearance, IFWA had continued its agitation, mobilising a number of protests sufficiently robust to be described in a SPI memo to member companies as “non peaceful”. A protest at government buildings followed in May, then more at Ardmore Studios later in the year, including those featured on the Prime Time programme. The tenor of the RTE exposé – that IFWA represented a militant trade union faction unwelcomed by the majority of other industry stakeholders, including film workers outside (and in some cases within) its membership – was unquestionable. IFWA’s blurred out picketers, alleged threats, and “industrial language” contrasted sharply with the more measured tones of the industry “establishment”. Prime Time’s investigative efforts uncovered the criminal and paramilitary past of at least two IFWA members, although it was careful to describe such individuals as a “rump” within a larger group. Barely a week after the programme aired, ICTU withdrew from the proposed industry forum, saying it would only sit with “legitimate” trade unions (McNulty 2018). The forum, which the Film Board had hoped to initiate before the end of the year, appeared dead in the water, and to date has still not convened.
Despite IFWA’s “industrial” tactics, there can be little doubt that its appearance before the Joint Committee has had positive implications for film workers. The subsequent mobilisation of the film guilds has arguably re-energised SIPTU’s Arts and Culture section. The union has benefitted with an upsurge in membership, as the Guilds play an active part in ongoing efforts to update the 2010 Shooting Crew Agreement between SIPTU and SPI, thereby setting new standards for film employment and remuneration in the coming decade. That in itself is a remarkable development, revitalising what had become a moribund process as attempts to renegotiate the agreement foundered in recent years, partly due to a lack of engagement by film workers themselves.
And what of IFWA’s calls for closer scrutiny of Section 481 compliance? There can be little doubt that it has concentrated industry minds around the question of training and upgrading, an acknowledged weakness that, as pointed out by John Hickey during the committee hearings, has been traditionally carried out with trade union supervision (Joint Committee 2018). This indicates an upward trajectory in trade union relevance, as does the burgeoning relations between SIPTU, the guilds and SPI. So regardless of the validity of IFWA’s claims, the organisation has undoubtedly catalysed a rejuvenation of industry labour relations. As reported in the 2018 Phoenix Annual,
There’s no doubt that the IFWA has lacked some of the organisation of more established unions but, without its agitation, there would be no talk of reactivating the film industry forum, where contentious industrial relations issues can be raised. (Goldhawk 7)
There is little point in convening such a forum, of course, without the representation of all sections of the industry, including IFWA. The real challenge to the Irish film industry – a flourishing one, increasingly international in its scope and ambitions, yet increasingly dependent on a tax credit system itself constituted around the promise of industry development and quality employment – is to maintain its relatively long history (at least to the outer world) of industrial relations stability. To do this, it must demonstrate its commitment to employment quality as well as employment quantity, while somehow finding a way to bridge the seemingly unbridgable divide between its established players and upstart organisations like the Irish Film Workers Association.
Goldhawk. John Arkins’s Headache. Phoenix, 15 November 2018. 7
Joint Committee 2018. Irish Film Industry: Discussion. Joint Committee on Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. 31 Jan 2018. Kildare St. [online]. 14 March 2019. https://www.kildarestreet.com/committees/?id=2018-01-31a.905
Joint Committee 2018a. Irish Film Industry: Discussion (resumed). Joint Committee on Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, 13 Feb 2018. Kildare St. [online]. 14 March 2019.https://www.kildarestreet.com/committees/?id=2018-02-13a.596
Joint Committee 2018b. Development and Working Conditions in the Irish Film Industry. Dublin: Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
Libreri, S. 2018. “Film Industry Workers Bullied and Harassed, Say Unions”. RTE News [online]. 15 March 2018. https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2018/0213/940365-oireachtas-film-workers/
McNulty, F. 2018. “Irish Congress of Trade Unions Withdraws from Film Industry Forum”. RTE News, 8 Nov [Online]. 13 March 2019. https://www.rte.ie/news/2018/1108/1009591-screen-ireland-ictu/
RTE 2018. “Fear and Loathing in the Irish Film Industry”. Prime Time, 1 Nov [Online]. 14 March 2019. https://www.rte.ie/news/player/prime-time/2018/1101/
Sheehy, T. 2012. “The Devil is in the Detail”. Irish Film Portal [Online]. 13 March 2019. http://irishfilmportal.blogspot.ie/2012/02/devil-is-in-detail.html