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Writers Guild East Slams Reality TV Shows as ‘High-Status Sweatshops’

WGAE and nonfiction TV writers-producers testified on workers rights on Tuesday at a public hearing in New York

The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) and nonfiction TV writers-producers testified on workers’ rights on Tuesday at a public hearing, describing labor on reality television as “high-status sweatshops.”

“This is how the gig economy works, a system of high-status sweatshops,” said Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East, in submitted testimony. “Perhaps worst of all, there is plenty of money in this industry to solve the problems of long hours, low pay, and scant benefits.  The television networks that distribute these shows make enormous amounts of money from advertising and from fees they negotiate with cable companies.  Unfortunately, audiences and elected officials are simply unaware of the awful working conditions and therefore the TV networks have felt no pressure to make changes.”

Peterson added, “The pressure to deliver the shows on-time and on-budget to the TV networks makes it extremely difficult even to think about taking sick days, or to put in for overtime, or to complain about unsafe working conditions.  The freelance, gig-to-gig nature of employment also scares APs into keeping their heads down and their mouths shut; after all, if you get a reputation as someone who stands up for your basic rights, you simply won’t get hired for the next gig.”

The public hearing, held by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Policy & Standards (OLPS), in partnership with the New York City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), called upon the WGAE to testify about the thousands of New Yorkers working in nonfiction/reality TV.

Peterson also talked about the 12 to 14 hour workdays, low pay rates dipping below $15, and the lack of health benefits — and if there are any, the companies only give coverage to employees who have been at the company long enough to qualify or can pay hefty premiums.

Alastair Bates, an EP and showrunner for “Redrum” on the Investigation Discovery channel and a WGAE member, testified at the hearing and said, “Production companies routinely and illegally filled in time cards for employees and made their hires regularly work way longer than an 8-hour day and also on weekends without compensating them for overtime.”

She also added that health and safety standards were ignored and is calling for ground rules that include agreed minimum rates of pay for the basic job categories, overtime, paid sick leave, strict health and safety compliance and employer healthcare contributions.

“To put it another way, the New Yorkers who work on nonfiction/reality TV shows are suffering in the gig economy – not because there isn’t enough money in the TV business for sustainable careers, but because the production companies blame the networks, which in turn evade responsibility,” concluded Peterson. “Sustained inquiry and analysis by the City would be invaluable to these hard-working people.  And it is imperative that the networks like A&E be brought to the table to answer for the deplorable conditions suffered by the people who craft the shows that attract audiences and advertising dollars.”