What labour shortage?
Research conducted here in Canada and abroad* indicates a labour shortage in the audiovisual sector. Labour unions and production companies report problems attracting new talent for certain key positions. Yet when we spoke to workers in the audiovisual sector, we heard a different story.
After publishing an article with tips on how to be an attractive employer in the audiovisual industry, we reached out to tradespeople via freelancer Facebook groups in Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal to get their opinion. We were shocked by what we learned.
“What shortage?” blurts out Kirk Lubimov, a unit still photographer in Vancouver who voices a sentiment shared by many others. Sharai Mustatia, an industry driver and photographer, has not worked since November. Johann Guéhennec, a Montréal technician who specializes in installing cameras, has hardly worked a full week since February. And their stories are common.
“There’s actually a huge number of people who joined the film industry when it was very busy [in summer 2021] who are now out of work because there’s not enough productions to support the influx of new workers,” explains an assistant director and member of the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC), who asked to remain anonymous.
Industry experts have reported a downturn in the number of American films shot in Canada. In British Columbia, ongoing negotiations with IATSE and the DGC, whose collective agreements are set to expire this year, has not helped the situation. “Uncertainty about accessing workers means major U.S. studios are reluctant to shoot here,” explains Madeleine, a lead set designer from Vancouver who asked that her last name be withheld. “Normally, this time of year is very busy.”
Whether the industry is busy or not, Kirk Lubimov does not believe there is a labour shortage. “Lots of people are ready to work,” he says, “but it is very difficult for a new recruit to get on a set if they’re not a union member. Yet joining a union requires accumulating quite a few hours of shooting experience.” In his opinion, the main issue is not the lack of talent, but this “bottleneck” that prevents people from getting the experience they need.
It is important to note that work in the audiovisual industry is notoriously inconsistent. The demand for workers fluctuates seasonally, depending on the number of productions currently shooting. And the sector relies heavily on freelancers, whose contracts end when a project wraps up.
In a recent sector study published by the National Institute of Image and Sound (L’inis), 65 per cent of the audiovisual workers surveyed self-described as freelancers. More broadly, a Canadian study conducted by Hill Strategies found that 65 per cent of artists are self-employed, which is nearly five times higher than the national average of 15 per cent. And Canada is by no means the exception–data from the British Film Institute (BFI) indicates that 54 per cent of film and video industry workers in England are self-employed.
Job insecurity in the audiovisual industry is slowly giving rise to more overt discontent from sector workers. Christian Lemay, president of the Alliance québécoise des techniciens de l'image et du son (AQTIS), considers the lack of enthusiasm for labour agreements recently signed in British Columbia–only 60% of union members showed their support–to be proof of this. “People are starting to ask for more, and they are much less inclined to accept poor working conditions. I also know the sector was extremely disappointed by how little was gained last October during negotiations between Hollywood and IATSE .”
Many of the demands by tradespeople are actually basic improvements to working conditions that are standard in other industries. “We want an option to take weekends off and to limit the work day to 12 hours,” says Madeleine. “Producers will take advantage unless we say no. Also, the mileage reimbursement rate has not gone up in years,” she adds. The lead set designer points out that studios have a poor record of ensuring the physical and psychological safety of workers. “Substance use and mental health issues are widespread. These are complex societal issues that are very hard to address and many of us are left on our own.”
Madeleine does see a glimmer of hope: wages went up last summer when productions started up again after pandemic restrictions were lifted. “An increased demand for workers gives us some leverage in negotiating our rates. And once wages increase, they generally don’t come back down.”
*Studies reporting labour shortage in various trades across the audiovisual industry:
- Toronto Screen Industry Workforce Study, March 2021
- BC Motion Picture Industry Below-the-Line Labour Market Study – Creative BC, 2019