Lingnan survey shows over 60% of film and TV industry workers experience wage defaults Scholar urges industry to introduce standard contracts

2 Apr 2024

Promoting the development of the film and TV industry has been the focus of the Hong Kong government's cultural policy in recent years. Lingnan University recently conducted a study titled "The Labour Conditions of the Video Production Industry in Hong Kong" on film, TV, advertising, and online video production workers' employment conditions and the industry itself. The findings revealed that over 60 per cent of respondents had experienced a delay in payment of wages in their most recent job, 17 per cent for more than six months. The research team suggests that the government, a major investor in the local video production industry, should take the lead in promoting reasonable labour conditions and best practices in their funded projects.



Funded by Oxfam Hong Kong, Lingnan University's Youth Poverty and Employment research team collected 212 valid responses in two rounds of questionnaire surveys between April 2023 and January 2024. The respondents, aged between 18 and 65 with an average age of 32.5, worked in film, TV, advertising, and online video production. 32.1 per cent had five to ten years of experience, and 37.3 per cent were newcomers with at most five years of experience. The team also conducted in-depth interviews with 44 people working in the industry.



The survey results showed that nearly 70 per cent (68.9%) of respondents were freelancers, 11.3 per cent worked for a production company, and only 19.3 per cent were directly employed (Figure 1). More than half the respondents (55.1%) reported that their average income over the previous six months had been less than HKD 20,000, i.e. below the median income of the final quarter of 2023, meaning that more than half of the respondents' monthly income was below the Hong Kong average (Figure 2).



The survey also found that most work agreements in the film and TV industry are informal, with 41 per cent of respondents indicating that they only had verbal or message agreements, while 17 per cent indicated that they had no agreement before starting work, and only about 20 per cent (23.6%) of respondents had signed a formal contract (Figure 3). Although informal agreements are a common practice in the industry, 63.2 per cent of respondents hope to sign a written contract before starting work in the future, indicating huge room for improvement. As for work-related injury arrangements and insurance, nearly 60 per cent of respondents said that they had never had such an agreement, while only 9.9 per cent said that they would "always" and "frequently" discuss the matter in advance (Figure 4). More than 90 per cent (93.3%) of respondents would like dedicated safety personnel on set to manage occupational safety risks, prevent accidents, provide safety advice to the production crew, and promote safe work practices.



In addition, there is the issue of long working hours. Most respondents said that 12 hours of shooting per day is a minimum, not counting the time required for preparation and make-up or for tidying up and administrative work afterwards. Respondents also frequently faced wage delays. More than 60 per cent (62.3%) indicated that there had been delays in their most recent job, with 25 per cent suffering delays despite already having agreed to a payment period before starting the job. 22 per cent of respondents suffered delays of one to three months, and 17.4 per cent of six months or more (Figure 5). Delayed payment was most severe for camera crews, and lighting technicians and electricians, with 72.2 per cent and 80 per cent of respondents respectively indicating that they "always" and "frequently" suffer from payment delays.



Only half (55.5%) of respondents pursuing wage claims had been successful. 22.6 per cent were still pursuing their wages, and 21.9 per cent had failed to recover them (Figure 6). Many respondents described the employers as "scoundrels". When asked why they had given up raising the issue of unfair treatment, 56.6 per cent said they "worry about being bad-mouthed", and other reasons included not believing it was effective (55.7%), worrying that the process would be complicated and time-consuming (48.1%), pressure from above (30.7%), and concerns about the legal consequences (5.2%), etc. (Figure 7). In in-depth interviews, the team found that respondents most often attribute this unacceptable treatment to "the industry is just the way it is", indicating that they feel powerless to change existing norms. Those who try to challenge the rules may harm their own reputation, and lose future job opportunities. The grey area created by such unwritten rules is a hotbed of mistreatment and exploitation, as workers are dissuaded from making complaints.



The research team also conducted in-depth interviews with 44 film and TV industry workers. One interviewee, Stark, discussed his experience of delayed payment for his work as a cinematographer and post-production editor. He said the contract stated that the final payment for production would be made upon delivery of the short film. However, the client kept defaulting on the final payment, and also requested changes every few months to show that the video was not a "finished product". Whenever Stark enquired about payment, the client gave evasive replies or did not reply at all. It took two and a half years and a threat of legal action before Stark was finally paid. Thus, unclear payment dates can cause wage arrears even with a contract.



Prof Pun Ngai, Head and Chair Professor of the Department of Cultural Studies, said that in the past two years incidents like the MIRROR concert accident and the fall from a filming platform in Kowloon City had aroused public concern, and highlighted safety risks in performance and film and TV production in Hong Kong. As a major investor in the local film and TV industry, the government, besides increasing funding, should also take a leading role in ensuring that working conditions within the industry are of a reasonable standard.



Prof Pun said, "Most of the film and TV workers face a fragmented employment pattern, making it difficult for them to seek improvements in their treatment. We believe that the government should take the lead in urging the industry to introduce standard contracts, promote the culture of signing a full agreement before starting work, and address the occupational safety and health risks during the production period to safeguard the freelance workers' interests. The government can also promote labour-friendly measures through subsidising film and TV projects, including requiring the industry to employ workers under standard contracts, establishing work schedules to enhance safety on film sites, and regulating working hours to reduce overtime work. We also suggest the government considers regulating the film and TV industry, such as the current oversight of factories and construction projects, and requiring specific high-risk filming locations to be reported to the Labour Department before starting work on shooting sites."



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