Reigning New Zealander of the Year Jennifer Ward-Lealand says she heard Kiwi screen workers once referred to as the "Mexicans of the South Pacific".

"I think that is just embarrassing to have that reputation. What kind of perception does that create? That's we're just cheap and expendable workers? Being the cheapest is not always the best thing.

"I think a country is judged on how well it treats its workers."

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Ward-Lealand made the comments in her submission on the Screen Industry Workers Bill which, if passed, would repeal parts of the controversial 2010 "Hobbit Law" and said the expression "had been going around for a while".

The actress, who broadly supports the bill, is president of the actors' union Equity New Zealand.

Equity was part of the cross-industry Film Industry Working Group today, facilitated by Kensington Swan lawyer and former political journalist Linda Clark, tasked with dealing with power imbalances while the industry continued to thrive.

The bill, which passed its first reading in March, would keep screen workers as independent contractors but allow them to bargain collectively. It continues to bar the rights to strike and challenge their status.

The legislation was opposed by National and Act voting against, citing concerns it would harm the film industry.

Ward-Lealand told the Herald she completely disagreed with that argument and said the bill would give workers back rights their overseas counterparts had, and collective bargaining would mean improvements in minimum pay and conditions.

Productions came to New Zealand for many reasons, including the scenery, talented workers, studio space and tax concerns, Ward-Lealand said.

And New Zealand's success with fighting Covid-19 meant even more productions were looking to shoot here.


"Why wouldn't you want to shoot a film in New Zealand? We've got the eyes of the world on us."

The Hobbit Law was passed under urgency in 2010 after negotiations between the then National-led government and Warner Bros executives following a threat to take the shooting of the films offshore.

The law made film industry workers independent contractors who could not legally collectively bargain.

One of the gatherings held in 2010 to show Warner Bros actors supported filming of The Hobbit in New Zealand. Photo / NZPA
One of the gatherings held in 2010 to show Warner Bros actors supported filming of The Hobbit in New Zealand. Photo / NZPA

Ward-Lealand said since its introduction actors hadn't seen any meaningful increase in their fees and the bill would help change that.

"The floor has become the ceiling.

"It's not just about fees, it's about workplace conditions and it's about being able to call out bullying and harassment," she told the Herald.

"If you think the actor has any power in a scenario then this is not the case at all."

"We don't think that this bill will be a panacea to every actor's work problem but we do think that the bill will set a tone for a respectful working environment and fairer working conditions. Surely that has to be the kind of reputation we want in New Zealand," Ward-Lealand said.

Ward-Lealand said it was very common for actors to be blacklisted and get a reputation for being "difficult" if they chose to speak out about their pay or conditions. The bill would add protections, she said.

"It looks like a glamorous industry from the outside, but it's a very small world."

Select committee hearings will continue tomorrow, with submissions from the Australia New Zealand Screen Association, Equity, New Zealand Law Society and the NZ Game Developers Association.