I’ve been working for minimum wage. Why?

by Sarah Lockett on October 29, 2020

The National Living Wage is £8.72/hour – this is the government’s minimum wage for people aged over 25. I have recently been working for £87.20 for 10 hours (minus a 10% commission for the agent who got me the work) so you see I’ve actually been working for less than the minimum. Why is this? And what was the experience like?

Now, it’s not just a question of working for less money. Sometimes I work for NO money (eg I recently interviewed @CherieBlair on stage in front of 300 people, for the charity @Kisharon – it was a lot of fun, they gave me a fancy brunch and a lovely bouquet, but I didn’t ask for any actual pay). And I was happy to do it.

But this week, I was working on a Bollywood movie as an extra. It was a low budget movie, and Bollywood are known for paying less than the UK union rates (which are agreed every few years with the performance union FAA (Film Artistes’ Association, a sub-division of BECTU – the Media and Entertainment Union) and PACT (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television – the trade association representing the commercial interests of UK independent television, film, digital, children’s and animation media companies).

So, you know you’ll be low-paid when you sign on for a Bollywood movie. And it’s not just the low pay that has resulted in me making the decision that – I’ll never be going back. Does that make me a huge snowflake? When I list the negatives, it does make me sound like a pampered princess. Oh, there was no tea or coffee all day. We were kept in an unheated room for 11 hours (it was 9°C outside). Our start time was 0530am but we were only paid from 8am (whaaaaat?!) Our finish time was 5pm (in their opinion) but we were only released to go home at 830pm. The crew got breakfast but we (having started at 0530, and I got up at 0420) got no food till “breakfast” at 1245pm. Lunch was at 1.45pm (an hour later). Some extras were asked to go and BUY additional items of costume by the next day etc etc.

So I decided, after the revelation that we wouldn’t be paid for all the hours we’d done, that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have a confrontation – I was nice, I was pleasant (although other extras complained loudly/walked off set) – I won’t be doing it again.

Other extras were cheerful, unbothered, accepting, and will be going back for more. Why? Well, obviously some people have no choice – perhaps this is the only kind of work they can get, or it fits around other aspects of their lives (perhaps caring responsibilities). But it doesn’t make it OK.

One thing that the production company could have done – aside from fixing all the ‘Health and Safety’/Acceptable Conditions of Work aspects of the job – would be: to keep us informed. They had a producer/fixer assigned to looking after the extras (so he’s already being paid to be there). He could have apologised for the lack of facilities, explained the delays/problems and worked to make things better for us. Instead he fobbed us off with vague words, “There will be food coming later, we don’t know what time we will finish” etc. To be fair to him, he didn’t know what was happening because they didn’t have walkie-talkies (as most Western productions do).

In fact, there’s a laundry list of things the production company should have done (I have just seen that the minimum acceptable temperature in a workplace is 16°C) but that’s a whole other subject. As we were driven back to London in the dark, I looked at the 4 other extras in the minibus: variously sleeping, scrolling through the blueish glow of their phones, staring out of the window (this was all time that we weren’t being paid for, the agent’s argument being that it was “travelling time” – that they were “saving us the cost of the petrol”. Hmmm.

I am just glad that I don’t have to do this type of work, in poor conditions, cold, unfed. I was glad I have other skills that are highly prized in society and well paid. Although we weren’t digging ditches, selling our kidneys, or trapped in modern slavery, it wasn’t a good experience, and after 3 days on 3 different Bollywood movies, I’m out.