The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) recently completed its audit of Ireland’s independent film and TV production sector, quietly releasing its report on the last day of August. The audit follows a period of considerable unease in the industry dating back to 2011, when a group called the Irish Film Workers Association (IFWA) commenced a sporadic but sustained campaign of agitation on film and TV drama sets around the Dublin region, including a number of lightning strikes, unofficial pickets and demonstrations.
These activities partly motivated a 2018 investigation into industry working conditions by the Dáil Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. IFWA’s appearance before the committee, and their allegations of worker mistreatment, unsafe practices and other grievances, received considerable coverage in the mainstream media. The Committee subsequently invited and received a large number of submissions, many of them hostile to IFWA and its members, from industry stakeholders and other interested parties. A notable feature of these submissions was that several had come from newly created industry guilds representing set decorators, production accountants, location managers, and art directors, in a campaign coordinated by Screen Guilds of Ireland, (SGI), itself newly created by a group of film workers headed by set decorator and art department coordinator Elizabeth Brennan.
In summer 2018 the Committee’s report, Development and Working Conditions in the Irish Film Industry, called on the Film Board (now Screen Ireland), film unions, and other representative organisations “to work towards a mutually beneficial and respectful understanding”, in a clear plea to the industry to sort out the issues that had prompted the hearings in the first place. Progress was slow, with trade union officials reluctant to engage with IFWA and its leadership. Meanwhile, IFWA continued its campaign of unofficial protests, and the organisation eventually became the subject of an RTE Prime Time segment, about which I have previously written. The high-profile nature of this RTE report afforded a rare behind-the-scenes look at the film and TV sector, whose political machinations – apart from the odd article in The Phoenix – are generally ignored by the main media in favour of a more celebrity/entertainment-focused approach.
Such attention, and the potentially negative consequences for Ireland’s reputation as a friendly filmmaking location for overseas producers, made the WRC’s intervention all the more urgent. Many in the industry will have been relieved that the Commission’s 16-page report received generally positive reception the major stakeholders, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Screen Ireland, Screen Producers Ireland, and even IFWA itself.
Setting the terms of reference for its audit, the WRC had aimed to:
- examine industrial relations generally, employment practices and procedure;
- assess issues arising (if any), and
- make recommendations for their improvement where appropriate.
The main conclusions were:
- The industry’s international reputation depends on good industrial relations, necessitating new employer-worker agreements on pay, working hours, conditions and practices, as well as formal dispute resolution procedures;
- Industry skills and training, as recommended in a recent Crowe Horwath report, must continue to be improved, with Screen Skills Ireland (SSI) playing a major role;
- The guilds structure, which has been positive for industry relations, should be supported and expanded; and
- Better HR management and hiring practices are needed, in the interests of hiring ‘the most suitable person for the job taking into account skills and experience.’
Variations of most of these recommendations have been seen in previous reports commissioned from various quarters of the Irish screen industries over the years. Arguably, therefore, the most striking feature of the WRC audit is the degree to which it legitimises the recent trend in the industry towards film worker organisation, not through the traditional medium of trade unions, but through the ‘guilds structure’ that continues to evolve, with 24 new guilds currently listed under the SGI umbrella. Indeed SGI received a €40,000 grant from Screen Ireland in 2018, the first ‘below-the-line’ organisation to achieve this kind of support, which has become the norm for ‘above-the-line’ organisations like the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland, the Writers Guild of Ireland, Screen Producers Ireland, and Animation Ireland.
That support, along with the embrace of the traditional trade union movement, represents a considerable achievement for guild members. It also represents a remarkable return to formal film worker organisation in the Irish screen industries, as guild members have been encouraged to join the trade unions representing their craft or profession, reversing a decades-long decline in union membership and invigorating efforts to negotiate new union-employer agreements on pay and conditions.
One obvious conclusion from these developments is that the Irish Film Workers Association, despite its general pariah status within Ireland’s screen industries, has catalysed a number of positive changes for people working in the sector. Hopefully this will be borne out in the new trade union agreements, when and if they ever emerge.