Eyes Half Shut - Can a freelance afford to turn down excessive working hours?
BECTU (the Media and Entertainment Union) is currently running a campaign called Eyes Half Shut, to stamp out long hours for film and TV crew. With the combined union power of its members, it may well have an impact on conditions for those workers, which is great news for anyone in that part of the entertainment industry.
But it’s unlikely to make much difference for freelancers in theatre and events, particularly the latter where union agreements simply don’t exist, despite many workers joining the union for the other benefits it brings such as legal support and insurance.
I challenge any car-owning freelance worker in theatre and live events not to recognise this scenario:
You’re driving home on your own in the early hours of the morning, after a long day. Another ballad is playing on the radio. You woke up at six yesterday morning, left home at seven to start your shift at nine, setting up for an event that kicked off at 7pm.
You worked through most of the event, perhaps being one of the ‘lucky’ ones able to chill out for a couple of hours in the crew room (aka ‘flight-case storage room’), but on call throughout. You started the get-out at midnight and closed the truck doors at 3am, before starting out on your 2-hour drive home.
Your eyes are beginning to close. But it’s all worth it, because the production manager offered you a day and a half rate, and you can take tomorrow off to recover from your 24-hour day. Assuming, of course, that you do actually make it home.
I’m a survivor. And it has nothing to do with a super-power for driving with my eyes closed. It has everything to do with luck.
I remember the high-profile party I helped build three times a year, where the supposed badge of honour was still being awake after 24 hours to buy yourself a McDonalds breakfast, before hitting the M25. I remember twice waking up in Clacketts Lane Service Station, aware that I'd barely managed to apply the handbrake before falling asleep on the steering wheel for an hour. One bar of chocolate later and my imaginary super-powers were restored as I hit the road again, knowing that I only had two more junctions to go until I was nearly home.
Or I could tell you about the festival I headed home from on the M40, mysteriously waking up at 5am parked at a green light at Hanger Lane, one of the busiest junctions in London, with no recollection of the last fifty miles since leaving Oxford services.
Then there was the time my tired eyes spotted a moving object in the headlights on the A30. My reactions were too slow to avoid hitting a deer and dragging it for some thirty yards, before having to leave the car and think of a way to put the poor creature out of its misery; its big, brown eyes looking sadly at me for help through its pain. I still remember the look and am grateful, even as an animal lover, that least it was not a person.
There is no super power that enables you to drive safely when tired. Not coffee, Redbull, pro-plus, opening the window or singing at the top of your voice to whatever tune the radio is offering. I’ve tried them all. Except for the coffee, but that’s because I’m strange and don’t do hot drinks.
So why does the industry continue to promote and expect long-shifts? The average day shift for a freelance is considered to be 12 hours. Sometimes it will be shorter. Sometimes longer. If you are booked on a week-long conference, the expectation is likely to be for a sixty-hour working week, plus however long the get-out takes.
If travelling some distance, you may be lucky enough to work for a company who included accommodation in their budget to the client. This is rarely included for the night before the start, unless it’s in a remote place or a very early start. The tough part for companies is, clients don’t want to be paying £150 extra per night for a good hotel per crew member, and they know they will be pricing themselves out of a job if they try to include it in their quote. A competitor will undercut them.
Even when accommodation is included, it’s still a problem after the event. Who hasn’t finished a shift, packing all the kit down and into a truck until 5am, before heading for a hotel room that Housekeeping will knocking on the door of less than six hours later, because the client wouldn’t pay for a late check-out for the crew?
Budgets aside, the manager who has approved these shifts and then sets out to persuade freelancers to accept a contract to fulfil them, still does so in the full knowledge that he or she is expecting the worker to accept the risk to earn the money. If they turn it down, they can usually find someone else to do it instead.
This is where the grey area still lies on corporate responsibility.
If a manager were to ask an employee to work such long hours and then drive home tired, the company would be liable for the risk they have created. It’s the reason why haulage firms have tachometers for their drivers, which limit not only speed but also excessive driving hours without a break. Airlines have the same rules for pilots and crew. Trains, for drivers.
Facts do not lie – people who are tired are more likely to have or cause accidents.
If a manager asks a freelancer to accept a shift, the responsibility shifts onto the freelancer to decide whether they feel safe working excessive hours. If they don’t then they must turn the job down, knowing that someone else will do it instead and nothing will change. For a freelancer who needs to earn money, the temptation is to take the risk and not miss out on the job.
It’s still easier for a company to sell their client extra uplighters or stilt-walkers for the first hour of their guests arrivals, than the notion of paying more for crew to avoid the scenario of people working from dawn til dawn, before driving home.
And it’s unrealistic to expect a freelancer to spend perhaps half of their day rate to book their own room, just to recover for a few hours before driving home, yet that’s exactly what some companies suggest.
Until this attitude changes and somehow becomes an enforceable norm for companies booking freelancers in the industry, many people will continue to drive with their eyes half shut.
Some will not like the fact I have written this article – even some freelancers believe they are invincible and won’t be the one who does eventually fall asleep at the wheel. This is how it is, they will say, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be working in this world because it’s not going to change. And perhaps they’re right in that respect – in the end it is still up to the freelancer to choose.
The current BECTU campaign may have some success in changing conditions for those members in full-time employment, but is unlikely to affect freelancers, who will continue to be pressured into take a chance. Some will be lucky, but some will not.
For most, it remains a hard choice – strive to change the industry, accept the risk or accept you need to change industries and find a new career that cares for its workforce better.