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Thursday 19th September 2019

Hero to zero: the truth about zero-hours contracts

Zero Hours Contracts
One of the sacrifices creatives often make is job security. But just how bad can it get?

There’s been a lot of talk politically about zero-hours contracts (ZHC) so I wanted to explore this and flexible working in general from my perspectives as both employee and employer.

An employee’s perspective:

As a freelance actress, I have essentially been working on various ZHCs for the past 11 years, working on anything from temping agencies, to promo jobs, to running workshops.

The pros for us creatives are:

Flexibility. If I’m temping and I get an audition I can take an extended unpaid lunch break – which was ideal when, last week at 6pm, my agent rang to say I had a recall at 11am the very next day*. Equally, when I was teaching and got a theatre job at a week’s notice, I could organise cover for my classes for the two months I was away and still have a job to go back to. This is only one pro but it’s a huge one, and the most important requisite for any day job of a creative, well over pay, colleagues, and the actual work.

The cons are:

  • No sick pay/holiday pay. (Some temping agencies do pay holiday pay, but not all.)
  • No guarantee of hours.
  • Employers can end your contract with no notice. This happened to me. I worked PAYE for six years on a ZHC. I paid tax as an employee but didn’t get holiday, sick pay or pension. One day my boss called me into her office and said I wouldn’t be coming back, she couldn’t fault my work but as it was ZHC she didn’t need to give me any notice. Turns out she gave my work to another (cheaper) company and whilst my wonderful union Equity fought to get me 10% of the holiday pay I should have been given over six years, I ended up jobless (I applied for 600 jobs, couldn’t get a single interview) and on benefits for five weeks for the first time in my life. However, the rage/boredom/upset that I went through led me to start my own theatre company, Untold Artsso it turned into something positive.

I ended up jobless and on benefits for the first time in my life.

An employer’s perspective:

At Untold Arts, I am contracting freelancers constantly. Thirty people last year and seven people this year so far. I contract self-employed people on a project-to-project basis and the dates and hours are lined out in the contract, however because the work has been fewer than three weeks continuously so far, I have to keep it flexible without compromising our productions. The sort of issues that have come up are as follows:

  • A director needed to take her children to school/nursery (theatre wages are approximately equal to or a bit less than the cost of childcare in London, something my friends at Parents in Performance Arts are looking to improve) so I wrote in the contract she could arrive a bit late into rehearsals as long as she had prepped her assistant director and stage manager with what needed to be run before she arrived.
  • A stage manager was waiting on a four-month contract from another company so I put in a clause in her contract to say if she was offered this before her contract with us started she could break our contract on condition that she found a suitable replacement as equal in their abilities and she did a handover document to get them up to speed.
  • Various actors had auditions/high paying corporate jobs come up and needed extended lunch breaks/to leave half an hour early so I wrote in their contracts as long as it was agreed in advance with their director, this was allowed.

I have to keep it flexible without compromising our productions.

The big pro of doing this was it allowed us to employ some of the best people in their fields, despite it being a relatively short-term theatre job. As a result, we had people who work for much larger companies such as The National Theatre and the RSC working with us, thus raising our profile as an emerging company.

However, as our projects get longer next year (currently fundraising for this, so here’s a cheeky plug), I am aware of needing to put in exclusivity clauses. Once a show is touring between five to six nights a week there can be big cons in being too flexible.

An actor friend of mine did a long theatre job in Scotland with a great company earlier this year paying Equity Minimum Theatre Rates (that dream all actors chase at £450 a week). He had one day off a week from the show he was in, but he had to use his day off to travel all the way back to his base in Leeds to do his day job so he would often have just three hours sleep on the nights he did this. Unsurprisingly he burnt himself out and became very ill.  As employers we have a duty to protect our employees’ health. With rail companies being as they are (delays due to heat/cold/wind/rain/sunshine/snow), it would cost my company a LOT of money to cancel a show if an actor ended up getting ill. So with flexibility, there needs to be some balance.

*This was a source of great pride. The audition was for a video game and included some sound effects, one of which was ‘the effort of swinging a sword.’ I wanted to be authentic so I picked up my huge imaginary sword and swung as hard as I could hitting my elbow hard on  a nearby lamp. No pain no gain. Boom.

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Nadia Nadif

Nadia Nadif

Mouthy blogger

Nadia works as an actress. She also teaches acting and storytelling to adults at City Academy and is an associate for National Youth Theatre, directing young people and leading inclusivity training.

2 Comments
  1. Brilliant piece Nadia! I used to be an actor and I feel your pain. I once walked out of a telesales job because I hated it so much – no notice required!! a definite pro in a job full of cons haha

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