Labour laws don’t protect extras on TV and film sets

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 24, 2024



Post the elections last month, many South Africans look forward to a new governance that will prioritise efforts to rid the ills of our society and develop a society that functions on good governance and principles of ethics and humanity.

Communities and organisations have numerous challenges that require urgent intervention strategies and development programmes to alleviate these challenges. Employment instability and precarity have been on the increase in an unstable economy in recent years.

The lack of jobs, numerous retrenchments in all sectors and the prevalence of acute and chronic scenarios of job insecurity have encouraged South Africans to opt for many other avenues for survival.

A growing popular and lucrative means of employment has been the possibility of many South Africans earning through becoming background actors. This short-term contract work opportunity can pay up to a few hundred rands per day, and often, there are other benefits associated with the job, such as food and accommodation.

The most appealing component of being employed as a background actor is that there are no defined skills, qualifications and work experience required. This task often just requires people to be  idle on a shooting set without any vocal participation. It is a job that most people can do as long as they are selected and meet the required physical demographics stipulated by the producer.

Acting agents are often responsible for introducing background actors to movie directors and producers and also accrue an introduction fee and a contractual payment arrangement.

Jack Devnarain, the chairman of The South African Guild of Actors, has emphasised that there is no regulation regarding protecting background actors within this sector. He recently took it upon himself to alert South Africans of the difficult working circumstances and environment that background actors are forced to endure after employment.

The South African Guild of Actors is the only organisation representing actors in our country's film, television, stage and commercial industries. It was formed in 2009. The organisation's primary purpose is to protect working conditions, compensation, and benefits for all those engaged in this industry on a permanent, full-time, or sporadic or part-time basis.

Historically, there have been numerous similar instances. Of recent it has been discovered through continual complaints expressed to the South African Guild of Actors and social media platforms that Shaka iLembe, produced by Bomb and specifically for M-Net's channel Mzansi Magic, have been exploiting their background actors.

Many of these actors are recruited by agents and through the producer. These candidates often come from impoverished backgrounds and opt to do these jobs to survive. The idea of working on the sets of Shaka iLembe is thrilling and is presented opportunistically.

Potential actors are falsely promised accommodation, meals and a daily wage of R300. No further details are given in relation to where actors will be staying, the type of accommodation and or the number of days they will be expected to work.

Some of these budding actors are forced to pay their transport costs to the venue of the shooting of this series which is in The Greater Cradle Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Upon the arrival of background actors at this venue, they are accommodated in a tent without access to essential resources such as running water and electricity. The tent has been described by Devnarain as a tent that is primarily designed for events and not for camping. But more alarming is that they are expected to sit and wait for a day to be employed to earn the promised R300.

It was expressed by one background actor that he had been at the venue waiting to be called to set. He has only worked one day. This poses extreme pressures of extreme hunger and malnutrition that these individuals are experiencing. It was further stated by Devnarain that the main actors and remaining crew are all given meals during the shoot, but background actors are excluded.

This type of exploitation is permissible simply because there are no regulations and governance structures that can support and protect employees in these circumstances.

A society like ours that values equity and equality have contributed to this type of exploitation by not developing appropriate structures and remedy strategies that can eliminate employment exploitation in the arts and culture sector. Devnarain communicated his knowledge of this present scenario to the Department of Employment and Labour on of June 11. More than a week has passed, and there has been no response whatsoever or even an acknowledgement that the letter was received.

This lack of response only affirms the lack of communication between civic organisations and our governmental sectors. How is it possible that South Africans continue to be exploited and not assisted in a country that supposedly condemns exploitation in our country that stands to hold values of equality and democracy?

Amidst all the political rallying and the various parties claiming to have a focus on people’s needs in South Africa, this sadly once again falls by the wayside. This undermines our Constitution and makes us more sceptical of the new government and its national priorities.

Thirty years later, exploitation is still overlooked in a democracy. Doesn’t this once again remind us of everything we wanted to rid of in the past?

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale).

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