Much of the media commentary in the past few days around the Hobbit stoush has been has been about the cheek of an Australian Union (the MEAA) daring to take on our very own Lord (Sir Peter Jackson) over the pay and conditions of NZ performers on the Hobbit set.
We’ve even seen the extraordinary situation where a Minister of the Crown and Attorney General has (mis)used his position to seek and publish advice from Crown Law to take sides in what is essentially an industrial dispute.
But underlying this is a much deeper issue. New Zealand’s competition laws impose huge restrictions on the rights of contract workers to collectively organise and bargain – no matter how dependent and how vulnerable.
I’m not qualified to comment on whether NZ performers in the Hobbit are being fairly paid or not. Nor do I pretend to understand the complexities of “residuals”” and other industry norms. But what I understand very well is the problem we have in New Zealand of dependent and independent contracting, and how this is often used to deny more vulnerable workers basic fairness.
I did a lot of work on this issue a couple of years ago when my members’ bill, Minimum Wage & Remuneration Bill was being debated through parliament (and was eventually defeated under the National/Act government).
At the time, NZ Actors Equity supported the bill saying :
“We have many NZ productions which we are all justly proud of, but rates of pay in some productions are nothing to be proud of. The poor pay & conditions of many performers is not commonly known, who, because they are classed as dependent or independent contractors, are expected to work for a whole lot less than workers who are employees.”
NZ law dictates that a worker who is not defined as an “employee” has no rights – even if they are vulnerable, dependent and poorly paid.
So, who can be surprised if from time to time, a group of workers, even if they happen to be performers and supposedly above needing to earn a decent living, use what leverage they can gather to get their boss to talk to them.