Artists and entertainers may think their work is a labour of love, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be paid a fair wage for it

"Nice work if you can get it!" is a phrase many struggling artists come to know well. But, it's also a phrase many successful and established artists have to face from time to time, too.

No matter how nice the work is, or how much you enjoy what you do for a living, the fact is that it's still something you have the right to be paid a fair price for and be treated like any other worker in New Zealand.

"It's not uncommon for performers to be paid well below minimum wage for their work," says Equity New Zealand President Jennifer Ward-Lealand.

"We have members who talk about working on high-profile theatre productions and being paid the equivalent of $7.50 an hour, or being offered only food and transport when filming commercials for profitable brands."

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It's not just artists who are suffering from poor pay conditions, contractors from many industries are skipping employer superannuation contributions and holiday pay. They may have a good hourly rate on paper, but often work more hours than they are being paid for, which, in reality, lowers their rate.

That's why Equity New Zealand was disappointed by Peter Dunne's withdrawal of support for the Minimum Wage (Contractor Remuneration) Amendment Bill, which they say could have paved the way for performers to be assured of fair pay.

The problem only escalates with age and even though it may feel okay to earn little when you're young, reality often bites later in life when responsibilities of paying for children or the threat of a lack of retirement savings hits home.
However, discussing money is often an off-limits subject for artists and performers.

"Studies have shown that actors who think about the property market more than three times a week are really boring to watch on stage!" says Jeremy Randerson, who has been an actor for the last 20 years, including in The Almighty Johnsons.

Most people are happy to contribute but not to be exploited.

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"Actors should be thinking about how to be really good actors and the work they are going to make next, and not so much about paying the rent or the property market."

Despite his reservations about thinking of finances, he does own a unit (with a mortgage) and says that makes an enormous difference to him, yet he still doesn't live on his acting alone and can't afford to pay anything into his KiwiSaver account at the moment.
He's not alone, and believes that arts organisations like Creative New Zealand could play a role in brokering affordable public indemnity or public liability insurance schemes, which would make anyone working in theatre, for instance, be able to opt into it for specific projects, rather than having to take it out individually.

"A universal non-profit ticketing system is another initiative waiting to happen, because people are gouged by ticketing fees, and it is proportionately more expensive the less you charge for a ticket," says Randerson.

"Removing some of these costs and barriers would mean a much better return on the money the country spends on the arts and be very positive for those of us working in it."

The price of living is very high in Auckland, which doesn't help anyone on low wages, but Randerson believes a stronger actor's union could help.

"I know in other parts of the world actor's unions provide services like dentistry, rehearsal space and legal assistance for their members at far cheaper rates, because of the efficiencies they can generate by working together," says Randerson.

"Those sorts of things are common for many other industries in New Zealand and go a long way to making life affordable and a lot less stressful."
He's not opposed to working for no pay, but believes if he does, everyone on the production must be asked to contribute or sacrifice a wage to the same degree. "There are large theatre companies in the country who have paid less than minimum wage to performers, while top staff are on very comfortable salaries. That is repulsive and inexcusable. t's not only actors who are affected by this - I've seen the same for directors, writers and graphic designers, typically though it is the performers and creatives who suffer more than others. Yet they are the ones who create the industry."

He has even been asked to give his image and time to have photographs taken for a show poster and publicity, with the understanding he would be cast in it, but then seen the images distributed to promote the show, yet someone else got the role and he received nothing at all. "Most people are happy to contribute," says Randerson, "but not to be exploited."

Other financial considerations come into play, such as how much it costs a performer in uncovered expenses when working for low or no pay. The job may cost a performer money for travel and expenses on the day, but you also have to think about the time spent learning scripts, auditioning and travelling. "An ad may seem to pay well but typically you have gone to dozens of auditions before you get one," says Randerson.
"Lots of people in society do things without being paid, you just need to make sure you believe in what you are doing."

The ups and downs of an artist's career mean a planning for future downtimes is needed and many artists in their later years are thankful they put their money into a home for security when the going was good.

"It's tough if you never have really great years where you can get enough money together at one time to do something to give you a little security," says Randerson. "But, actors are certainly not alone in this. Many people now are barely surviving, let alone planning for the future."

When you think about the enjoyment artists bring to people's lives, it makes sense to support them enough for them to enjoy their lives comfortably, too, away from the camera and bright lights that paint them as having the perfect life and limitless money on screen.