VFXwire had a chat with Joe Pavlo, Chair of the VFX Union (BECTU) in the UK and VFX Supervisor, about the VFX Union’s history, current work, hopes for the future and the current status of the visual effects industry as a whole..

Can you tell us a bit about the history of the UK VFX Union and why it is a necessity?

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you about the vfx union!

BECTU has always welcomed and supported everyone working in post production, including visual effects but in 2013 when vfx facility Rhythm & Hues won the Oscar for Life of Pi around the same time it went bankrupt, that triggered a global vfx unionisation movement. Here in London, BECTU organised a meet up for visual effects workers and around 500 showed up! It was a very lively and energised meeting. For so many people working in vfx this was the first time to voice their concerns and fears out in the open. There was a lot of anger at what people saw as an abuse of the people working in vfx. As a result of this, BECTU formed a separate branch for VFX and membership ballooned overnight!

We formed a committee of about 10 people that I chair. We are elected by members and we meet every month. The VFX Committee has been launching campaigns and petitions that address unpaid overtime, pensions, film credits, gender pay gap, harassment and bullying and many other issues that affect the vfx industry and people working in it.

So why do I think a vfx union a necessity? Here’s how I look at it… any workplace is a relationship between employer and employees. As in any relationship, there has to be a balance. If one party has all the power and holds all the cards, the relationship is unhealthy.

We can’t achieve that balance as individuals. One person on their own can’t negotiate fairly with a giant multinational corporation like the vfx facilities. The only way to achieve truly fair negotiation is through organised labour and trade unions. Collective bargaining.  It doesn’t always have to be adversarial but without a union pushing for workers rights, every decision management makes is always going to lean in favour of the company at the expense of the workforce. Sometimes it leans a lot, sometimes it’s almost imperceptible but unchallenged, it always leans in the companies direction, eroding away workers rights wages and benefits quietly over time.

The unions are there to help push back and keep things balanced. Unions are not perfect and they’re not the solution to everything, but what’s the alternative if we don’t unionise? Do we just accept what the facilities choose to offer us while we watch our rights, benefits, job security and wages slowly erode away over the years?

Unionisation is about opening a genuine two way communication between workers and management. Having a robust feedback loop in the workplace leads to better performance on all sides. Productivity goes up and managers have to think harder because they know their decisions will get a critical review. Giving the workers a seat at the table helps pop that bubble.

All too easily people forget that every single one of workers rights, benefits and protections throughout history have always come about through union campaigns. Things like a 40 hour week, child labour laws, paid holidays, health and safety, pensions, etc… none of these were part of the companies original business models and none of it it was ever offered willingly. It always had to be fought for by workers who joined together and unionised.

Unions are a good thing for all industries and in a heavily unionised industry like film, it’s appalling that visual effects is being excluded from union recognition when vfx are arguably the primary force driving today’s gigantic box office successes.

The most important benefit of joining a union is that we don’t have to struggle all alone. We stick up for each other for the benefit of all. As a union made up of individuals working in the visual effects industry, we can stand together and support each other when any of our members experience unfairness in the workplace.

– What is the current status of the union? How many members do you have and which goals are you currently working at achieving?

We have hundreds and hundreds of members today and we are growing. Soon, I hope to be able to say we have thousands of members!  It is my hope that people who work in vfx, but haven’t joined the union yet, take it on board, that they don’t have to be afraid to join. They really are not alone and already have many allies in the union. Many of the colleagues they work with every day are already members. To the people still sitting on the fence about becoming a vfx union member I say “Don’t be afraid to join! You’re among friends!”

– What do you see as the key issues concerning the current working conditions for VFX Professionals? 

We want to end excessive, unpaid overtime in UK vfx.

We have a serious and pervasive problem in our industry with women working in vfx struggling with the gender pay gap, discrimination, harassment and low retention of women in vfx in the long term and it all needs to be seriously addressed by the employers.

We need to constantly monitor, advise and try to positively influence this seemingly never ending Brexit process and it’s eventual outcome to help our members prepare for the future.

VFX has a real problem with the facilities and their race to the bottom that ultimately makes the whole industry unstable. This was most recently seen in London earlier this year when Halo VFX working on Bohemian Rhapsody went into liquidation and left dozens of visual effects artists unpaid and in some cases, tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket!

The industry has an even more pervasive problem with the vfx artists short term contracts and their general insecurity in the long term. No one knows what their employment situation will be a year from now let alone a month from now. It can be very stressful and makes planning for the future difficult for people working in vfx. This is bad for retention of experienced vfx workers and it dissuades others from joining the industry altogether.

– How can these issues be resolved?

First and most importantly, we need to achieve union membership that is a big enough proportion of the vfx workforce that it can’t be ignored. Then we can rightfully take our seat at the table and negotiate on behalf of all people working in vfx.

UNPAID OVERTIME. On excessive unpaid overtime: The same facilities who say that can not afford to pay overtime also have branches in Canada where they are required by law to pay overtime and last time I checked, business over there is booming! I’m sure we can find a way to transpose their Canadian business model to the UK.

WOMEN IN VFX. The gender pay gap is a serious problem and recent data shows it is getting worse. We can begin tackle it with the union members implementing a universal minimum rate for various grades and roles in the industry. We need transparency and openness about what people are getting paid. The facility enforced secrecy around salaries in our industry needs to go away so everybody is being paid fairly and no one is being taken advantage of.

When it comes to harassment in the workplace, usually the only place workers can go is to HR but as we have seen in many cases, there can be a conflict of interest for HR between protecting employees and always doing what’s best for the company. An official union rep can be a neutral adjudicator in areas like this that will bring more fairness and a better chance of positive action in disputes.

BREXIT. Brexit has the potential to do damage across all UK industries but the visual effects industry is particularly vulnerable. At least one third of the London vfx workforce is from Europe. BECTU is devoting a great deal of time and resources to staying on top of the ever shifting mess that is Brexit and will be there to help members navigate the uncertainty. If we can get a majority of vfx workers to join the union, we can make the case to the facilities for ourselves when the workers rights we have from the EU get changed or dropped. For a hypothetical example, let’s say the government makes 4 weeks statutory holiday pay voluntary as part of any trade deal with Donald Trump. All the facilities will jump at the chance to drop any optional financial burden but a strong union could force them to keep 4 weeks holiday pay in place. As individuals we don’t have a say. We would be at the mercy of forces beyond our control. As a strong union, we can fight for our rights and benefits and we can win.

INSECURITY. BECTU continues to assist and advise our members who lost money as a result of the collapse of Halo VFX. Even though it’s very difficult as the company and its directors are protected by British bankruptcy legislation, BECTU is continuing to pursue justice and ultimately, payment for our members. BECTU is also drafting industry policy to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future which we would like to see all the facilities adopt. A strong, unionised workforce could help pressure the facilities to take up BECTU’s preventative proposals and help make the industry stronger and more ethical.

With regard to short term contracts and general insecurity in the long term. It’s one of the things that drives the fear of joining the union in the first place. People ask themselves if I join the union, will they still hire me?” or will the work go away if everyone joins the union?” Of course there’s no evidence to support these fears. In fact, time and time again we see industries thriving when trade unions are given a seat at the table for collective bargaining. Unionisation leads to higher wages, improved benefits and safer, better work conditions overall. This makes workers happy. Happy workers increase productivity and profits! This makes employers happy!

– What are the future goals for the VFX Union and what is needed to get there?

Our biggest goal is to unionise a majority of the vfx workforce. Once we get there, all of the above is within reach! At current membership levels we can still do good. We can push to change little things here and there for the better, we can support our members case by case and we can make incremental progress, but to tackle and win the really big issues, we need the numbers on our side.

– Do you see any hope for normalizing the working conditions in the VFX Industry as a whole?

Absolutely! We need a healthy visual effects industry where all can thrive at all levels. Without visual effects, there is no film industry – or at least not a billion dollar box office film industry! The current business model for the studios and facilities is unsustainable. The studios are awash with money thanks to visual effects yet the facilities are often struggling in a race to the bottom. There’s plenty to go around – the problem is it’s all going to just the studios/people at the top – but the union can help fix that.

Everybody who works in visual effects loves what they do and we all want to keep doing it. This requires a healthy industry. The union is not only there to fight for the workers rights but also to help make the facilities and the entire system stronger and more ethical. The union is here to bring balance and prosperity to the film industry, never to harm it!

Thanks a lot to Joe Pavlo for taking the time for the interview. You can see more about Joe on his blog here and more about the VFX Union here.

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Allan Torp Jensen
Author: Allan Torp Jensen

Allan has worked on visual effects for feature films and television for 20 years. He has experience of the full VFX pipeline but has focused on compositing for the past 15 years and has been a Lead Compositor and Compositing Supervisor on various shows. He has worked with the talented people at Cinesite, Bluebolt VFX, Automatik VFX in London, and Weta Digital in New Zealand. For the past five years, he has worked remotely at his own Torper Studio on various high-end TV and feature film projects.