The industry that supports foreign productions filmed in Malta, the film services industry, has had some debate over the need to form a union for local crews to protect their rights and wages.
This industry is mature enough to benefit from such a union, but only so long as the union is professionally formed and its management understands the industry. Local producers and service providers can also benefit from a union.
For example, when foreign commercials are filmed in Malta, they can sometimes be reckless in terms of crew hours worked. Some clients expect crews to regularly work overtime on consecutive days, resulting in greatly reduced rest periods between one day of shooting and the next.
In the industry we call this a “turnaround”. Most countries with developed film industries have unions that impose a minimum number of rest periods and penalties for exceeding the standard number.
For local producers, such union rules could make life easier when ‘arguing’ with customers about the need to limit very long working days.
Not for the first time have I seen a production shot in far fewer days than deserved for purely budgetary reasons. In these cases, the work is massively underestimated by the customer, sometimes deceptively, sometimes out of sheer naivety, and overtime becomes inevitable, to the point where employees work 15- or 16-hour days for several days in a row.
The ability of clients to pay generous overtime is irrelevant at this stage compared to the significantly increased crew safety risks of commuting between home and set, not to mention the on-set risks of errors due to sheer fatigue .
An example where a crew union might have helped was when they were shooting one autumn night in a quarry near the sea. I was one of the producers on the show, but one day I got sick. My executive producer assured me not to worry and not to come on set.
Little did I know at the time that an unexpected storm was approaching from the sea on this side of the island. Lightning strikes were seen by the crew as the storm gradually approached the set.
The Maltese crew, who know only too well how changeable the weather can be between September and October, also knew that there was significant danger and that filming should be halted, at least for a few hours.
They talked about it, but that was all. The foreign producer ignored the obvious visual cues and let filming continue even when lightning struck the shore.
There is no reason to fear a union. However, fear can be justified when a union is not politically neutral– Malcolm Scerri Ferrante
None of the Maltese crew had the courage to approach any of the senior management and suggest a quick safety measure. And no union or “foreman” was available to formally intervene on behalf of the crew.
Eventually, the skies opened up, heavy rain began to flood the quarry, and the wind got so fierce that several easy-to-pitch tents flew across the set, miraculously missing people by inches. The storm was so strong that the equipment was damaged and the following day of shooting had to be cancelled.
Had there been a union empowering the crew to voice their health and safety concerns, the production would have been forced to use common sense to temporarily suspend filming and take cover to put the entire crew at risk minimize and avoid wasting another day of shooting.
Clearly, this scenario would have resulted in a win-win situation for everyone. The wisdom could easily have been there and not just in hindsight. But clearly the “continued plan bias” defied basic common sense.
Safety issues aside, there are also the occasional incidents (not accidents) where local producers don’t insist on strict cash flow schedules with their customers, to the point where payroll is delayed and sometimes reaches the stage where it’s no longer everything works.
The emergence of new local service providers who have no experience in this industry can occasionally lead to much ignorance, albeit great enthusiasm, and some rogue customers like to take advantage of this by not sticking to timely payment schedules. A responsible union would step in at the first sign of trouble and issue ultimatums to the production before filming was complete.
There are many valid arguments for a workers’ union and there are many reasons why honest local producers and employers can benefit from such organisation. If employers only think about fair play and the welfare of their crew, there is no reason to Fear of any union.
However, fear may be justified when a union is not politically neutral and obviously affiliated with a political party, as the local occupation has traditionally been politically diverse.
There is then a risk that crew members will receive minimum wage levels without proper evaluation of their experience.
Basically, a film crew union needs to really understand this very unique industry that is unlike any other industry. Union actions must be well informed, smart and responsible, not reckless or capricious.
Finally, the formation of an occupation union should be encouraged. However, a politically biased union with no film experience and only too willing to deal with pitchforks could easily get in the way of productions. This would risk creating a “them and us” mentality that would not be conducive to positive development in this industry.
Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante has over three decades of experience as executive producer and executive producer in the film and television industries.
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