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WGA East Charges Reality-TV Producers With Creating “Sweatshop” Conditions For A “Beleaguered And Exhausted Workforce” At NYC Hearing

WGA East Charges Reality-TV Producers With Creating “Sweatshop” Conditions For A “Beleaguered And Exhausted Workforce” At NYC HearingThey may not be under-age moppets toiling in Dickensian work-houses, but like Oliver Twist, writer-producers in New York City’s reality TV industry are saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Their collective voices were heard today during testimony before the New York City Council’s Civil Service & Labor Committee, which is investigating allegations of sweatshop conditions at the city’s reality TV production houses. Although invited, executives from those companies opted not to attend.

Image (3) WGAE_logo_20110616205123__140211174509-275x101__140403013618__140408175314.jpg for post 711549Lowell Peterson, executive director of the WGA East, estimated that some 15,000 New Yorkers are currently working in nonfiction television. Approximately 2,200 are writers and producers who “often work 12, 14, 16 hours or more per day,” the WGA East said in The Real Reality: Working Conditions in the Nonfiction and Reality Television Industry in NYC. The a report, presented to the council, recommends codifying reality-TV production practices. “Eight-hour days are rare,” according to the report. The writers “often work weeks or even months without a day off. Five-day weeks are also rare. And 88% of producers and associate producers said they were ‘never’ paid overtime on their current jobs. When coupled with periods of unemployment between jobs, and no paid time off (vacation or sick leave) allowed while on a job, these exhausting work schedules lead to severe burn-out.”

“Today you will hear the tale of two television industries,” Peterson told the committee. “Most of our members work in the part of the industry that provides good benefits, good pay, good middle-class careers. Today you are investigating the other part of the industry – nonfiction or ‘reality’ TV – which is almost entirely nonunion. People in that part of the industry work brutally long hours without overtime pay, without health or pension benefits, without paid time off, without the basic protections they deserve.”

TLCThe guild has been organizing reality show writers and producers in New York for the last five years. So far, it’s only signed contracts with three of the more than 20 companies there that each employ more than 50 writer-producers. It’s been trying to get a contract with ITV Studios, producers of A&E’s The First 48 and TLC’s Four Weddings, for the past four years.

So-called “wage theft” – the non-payment of overtime through the misclassification of employees as freelancers – dominated much of the testimony. Sarah Leberstein, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said that this widespread practice “illegally depresses labor costs and cheats workers out of the wages they’ve earned.” City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, who chaired the hearing, noted the city and state are “losing tax revenue” as a consequence of the practice.

Reality TV shows are currently not eligible to receive New York film tax subsidies, although Peterson said that industry executives are currently lobbying to be included in those tax breaks. Miller, a former union president, said he would strongly oppose extending those subsidies to reality TV unless the industry stops mistreating workers. “I find it appalling,” he said, “that the executives of these industries have not shown up to justify their positions nor to justify their asking for millions of dollars of subsidies in taxpayer dollars so they can continue to make a lot of money and exploit workers.”

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UPDATE: Reality Producers ITV Studios & Leftfield On NY City Council “Sweatshop” Hearing List

ITV-Studios-America-new-logoUPDATE, 12:40 PM:  Real Housewives and Pawn Stars producer Leftfield Entertainment and its new owner ITV Studios have been asked to testify at hearings this month before the New York City Council to provide evidence of their employees’ working conditions. The June 25 hearings are dubbed “The Real Reality of Reality TV” and will examine “the prevalence of long work hours, wage theft and overtime violations, the absence of health benefits, the lack of paid time off, and the health and safety concerns of producers and associate producers working under dangerous conditions,” NYC Councilman I. Daneek Miller said in letters to the production companies obtained by Deadline. (Read the letter to ITV here.)

ITV’s deal in May to acquire 80% of Leftfield for $360 million made ITV Studios US Group the largest independent unscripted producer in the States, the company said at the time. In Miller’s letter, he asked ITV to “describe how your recent purchases of other nonfiction production companies in NYC affect the working conditions of your writer-producers and other freelance employees.”

wga-east__120202004540__131121163927The City Council’s agenda for the hearings reads like the litany of accusations the WGA East has already made against ITV, which the guild has been trying to organize for the last four years. The guild has accused ITV of “stealing” an average of $30,000 a year from its writer-producers through what the guild calls “wage theft” — not paying overtime and for all hours worked. “At the hearing we hope to learn more about whether it will be necessary to involve the key players — production companies, networks, employee representatives — in an effort to establish and maintain better standards, perhaps with an industry code of conduct,” Miller said in identical letters to each of the companies. Whether they will get a fair hearing may be a matter of some concern to the companies, as Councilman Corey Johnson recently accused ITV of “working their people to the breaking point and then kicking them to the curb.” Read More »

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