A Timid Strike and a Quick Retreat: FEFSI withdraws strike after intervention from Labour Department

Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI), went on an indefinite strike from 1st August, demanding that the Tamilnadu Producers’ Council (TNPC) honour the wage agreement in effect. FEFSI is a federation of 24 craft unions within Tamil Nadu film Industry. Its affiliate unions represent workers and technicians from varying crafts such as direction, dance, cinematography, costume, editing, stunts, sound, writing, make-up & hair style, light operators and drivers.  TNPC, an association of producers (employers in this context) had challenged the ‘General Conditions’ that is part of the wage agreement. The ‘General Conditions’ stipulate the hours of work and terms of work for FEFSI members. TNPC had also stated its intention to employ non FEFSI members on the production sets. Alarmed by these statements, FEFSI declared an indefinite strike, while taking the issue to Labour Department for conciliation. The strike was withdrawn on 3rd August, after the intervention of senior actors including Rajinikanth and assurances from labour department to begin conciliation talks.

While news reports suggest that the issue arose after a dispute between technicians and production team at a film shoot, it quickly spiraled into a dispute between the two associations, one representing the workers (FEFSI) and the other representing the employers (TNPC). The bone of contention was the hours of work that constitute a ‘call sheet’. While the present norm is that a callsheet is 8-9 hours, TNPC wanted it extended to 12 hours. FEFSI opposed this move as it would result in loss of wage for the workers.

Superstar Rajnikanth, whose ongoing production has been hit by the strike, had spoken against the strike asking the warring parties to resolve their dispute through negotiation. The labour department agreed to call for negotiations. Citing these reasons, FEFSI relented and withdrew the strike. The strike had affected over 40 films. Inside sources reveal that one of the reasons that forced FEFSI to withdraw the strike was the threat that producers might employ non members. Moreover, four major constituents of FEFSI, Directors association, Cinematographers association, Stunt artist association and Dancers association, had not participated in the strike.

With tripartite negotiations slated for the coming days, it is unclear whether FEFSI would be able to effectively negotiate with the producers’ council.

Click To Hear FEFSI president Withdraw Strike

The Grievances of the Producers:

A young producer-director said “Chennai is the most expensive city to make films in India”. He was referring to Kollywood in general as against Bollywood, Tollywood or the other regional centers. While he acknowledged that the cost of lead actors (as a proportion to the overall budget) is highest in Tamil industry, he emphasized that the rules of FEFSI was pushing out small producers with smaller budgets. He said “FEFSI insists that technicians and other categories of workers will have to be employed even when there is no need for their skills and work. For example, even when a scene does not require a make-up man, the unions insist that a few be employed. This increases the size of the crew, making it very costly.” They also insist that we should only employ members of the union, which is also very problematic, especially when we are shooting outdoors.”

Click To Hear Prakash Raj, TNPC articulate the demands 

Some of the important demands of the producers’ council has been the

  1. The right to employ workers who are not part of the unions
  2. The right to employ only the minimum number of technicians required as opposed to a mandatory minimum prescribed by FEFSI.
  3. Extension of a Call sheet to 12 hours (with commensurate increase in Bata). This, they claim will stop FEFSI workers from demanding double bata for even a single hour extension after every 8 hours.
  4. Decreasing Journey Bata (the wage given to workers when they have to travel over 60 kilometers)

Weighing the Demands:

According to sources, the two major costs in movie making is salaries of lead actors and marketing. The producer-director, who spoke to Thozhillalar Koodum, mentioned how an actor’s salary is exorbitantly higher in Tamil industry. It is also becoming common for star actors to establish production houses. Wages of technicians and other crafts persons is only a minor part of the total budget. Yet, the producers’ council has long history of conflict with the film employees and their associations.

. While the bata rates and guidelines regarding journey time, work hours etc can be discussed under a new wage agreement due in a year and half, the demand to employ non members and employ them in numbers that a production manager decides is fraught with danger for employees who have little to no bargaining power on the sets. Using small budget productions as an excuse, producers council is attempting to undermine the ability of FEFSI to enforce wage agreements and protect its members.

According a cinematographer, “the reason a certain minimum is imposed by FEFSI, is to avoid overload of work on few workers once on the sets and under pressure to complete the shoot.” While a director and a producer might argue that a scene does not require certain type of artisans or technicians, there is nothing that stops them from forcing their assistants to engage in these tasks once on the sets. While there is credence to the claim that such minimums hike the cost of low budget films, it is essential to note the value of such minimums and find ways to work with FEFSI to evolve standards and monitoring mechanisms that reflect the present times while not exploiting the workers.

More insidious is the demand of TNPC to work with non FEFSI members. This essentially means that on the sets there would be two categories of workers, those protected by their membership with FEFSI and others without such protection. If FEFSI members take the narrow path of not representing the issues of non members, it would allow producers and production managers to exploit this section more to shore up their margins. If FEFSI members take the broader approach to cover all workers on the set, irrespective of their affiliation, it would make membership to various associations under FEFSI irrelevant leading to more workers opting out of being members. This would eventually undermine the effectiveness of FEFSI. Either way, producers stand to gain by dividing workers. Even though couched in the language of ‘rights’, this is an insidious campaign to break working class organizations and deny workers their rights.

A Need to Reshape FEFSI and its affiliates:

While FEFSI has been a great source of protection for workers in an industry that is known for financial defaults, the present situation brings to fore issues that plague FEFSI and its affiliates in the long run. This strike was organized with little preparation and consensus as can be seen from the fact that four major unions within the federation did not participate in the strike. Even though this did not impact the effectiveness of the strike that was almost total, it reveals the lack of communication and clear articulation of interests within FEFSI. A dance assistant, who spoke to Thozhillalar Koodum anonymously, said that their issues were not part of the strike and the issue was only between Technicians Union and producers.

FEFSI is a federation of crafts union from make-up artists and drivers unions to cinematographers and even includes directors union. Given that it is grouped by type of work rather than pay grades or skill levels across tasks, the unions tend to be highly segregated and hierarchic internally. The highest grossing dance master and a dance assistant who may have trouble finding even a days job, are both part of the same union. Predictably, their interests begin to diverge as this difference begins to widen. Yet the leadership of these unions rests with the most successful members of each union, who often begin to align more with the interests of producers and financiers (as many-a time they become producers themselves). This compromises the ability of the unions to raise systemic issues instead confining itself to ‘bata’ and protecting workers from wage defaults.

The costs of entry into these associations are also prohibitively high. Membership to some of the associations like costume and dance goes into lakhs of rupees. In a situation where FEFSI or its affiliates cannot guarantee a minimum income for its members, the entry costs do not make much sense, especially when there is a recurring membership fee that is calibrated to earnings.

It is important for FEFSI to come up with guidelines that reflect the present processes of production and also facilitate low budget movies inorder to uphold and enhance the creative space. It is essential for FEFSI to enter into agreements on wage and working conditions from this perspective. But members of FEFSI should be clear that a move to dismantle the existing protections or to decrease the role of FEFSI in this process would be severely detrimental. It is the patronage of the tamil cinema audience that has created this multi crore industry and ‘Larger than Life’ stars. But behind these films and stars, lies the hard work of an army of unsung technicians and workers. Hopefully, the audience will recognize their value and stand with them, rather than the celluloid heroes turned producers, in protecting workers rights.

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