The unorganised nature of the Hindi film industry and an absence of industry specific laws have for long condemned hundreds of thousands of workers to the mercy of film producers, who often make them work inordinately long hours without fair payment.

Industry federations tasked with framing the rights of artists and workers to ensure fair working conditions have succumbed to the power of the producers’ association, and their demands for formalised working conditions were never truly accepted, or only in part.

Bollywood was deemed an “industry” in 2000 under GATS obligations, when the business of cinema was notified under the Industrial Development Bank of India Act of 1964, paving the way for bank credit to filmmakers’ high-risk ventures, for which banks were earlier reluctant to extend loans.

However, the Act “was only limited to the point that producers could obtain loan from the banks. It had nothing to do with labour laws,” says Opender Chanana.

Director of the award winning documentary Living on the Edge: Deglamorising Bollywood which explores industry working conditions, Chanana was general secretary of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees when the law was enacted.

Although the Cine Workers and Cinema Theatre Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act and Rules (1981, 84) did stipulate minimum working conditions for cine workers, the laws were never implemented or enforced.

“The Cine Workers Act and Rules - which cover only cinema workers and not television workers - was passed by the government but there was no forum earmarked to oversee its implementation,” says Dilip Pithwa, also former general secretary of the FWICE.

Absent state enforcement, a practice of signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the producers, workers and artists’ bodies every five years was continued until 2015.

“The interplay between the artists, workers and producers’ bodies didn’t allow any intervention of an outside force that would adjudicate the industry’s issues, limiting the concerns of workers as an internal matter of the industry,” says Chanana.

There is no consensus on the number of people working in the Hindi film and television industry - estimates range from 2 to 3+ lakh people. A 2017 report by consultancy business Deloitte put the number of total workers employed in India’s film, television and online media industries at 7.4 lakh, estimating that the industry generates indirect employment for 23.6 lakh people.

Working hours for artists and workers can stretch from 13 to 18 hours (depending on the shift) with a fixed wage of 80 rupees for every hour of additional work beyond their daily 12 hour shift.

“We have to reach the set one hour early and by the time we wrap things up it invariably exceeds one hour over the 12-hour shift. And when the shooting stretches, which happens quite often, we end up working 16-18 hours,” says Anil Kute, senior spot boy at Cinevista Limited.

There is no health or life insurance cover for the workers on set, and the daily-wage workers don’t even get the minimum wage fixed by the workers’ union, Kute revealed.

“Minimum wages are fixed at Rs 1,150 per day by the Film Studios Setting & Allied Mazdoor Union. However, I get 950 per day. If we complain about wages or overtime to the unions, they inform the production houses about it, who then accuse us of doing politics, and stop hiring us for future projects,” Kute told The Citizen.

It was disagreements between the workers’ and producers’ associations on employee working hours that led to the yearly MOU signing practice being discontinued in 2015.

The other reason, said Pithwa, is that producer and director Vipul Shah filed a case against the All India Film Employees Confederation, FWICE and its 20-odd allied trade union associations in the Competition Commission of India, resulting in the commission’s order that the associations could not force producers to employ their members alone.

“Earlier, we used to have MOUs with producers’ bodies that would stipulate minimum wages for the workers. But for the last five years the practice has been abandoned. It’s a free trade now. The workers don’t have any negotiating power with the producers any more. They can’t fight with the producers for fear of losing their job,” says Chanana.

Last month FWICE, an amalgamation of 32 film workers’ bodies, and the Cine and Television Artists Association (CINTAA) a body of cinema and television artists, issued a set of guidelines recommending certain measures to be followed by the film and TV serial makers when they decide to resume filming.

The recommendations called for a fixed eight-hour shift, timely payment for work done, a mandatory weekly holiday, life insurance cover with Covid-19 specific coverage of Rs 50 lakh, and other measures.

However, after a meeting with the producers’ association, the guidelines were diluted as the producers didn’t agree to an eight-hour shift, and the insurance cover was reduced to Rs 25 lakh.

“Artists are not labourers, they are professionals and get lot of money for their work; a lawyer doesn’t work for eight hours only; does a journalist work only for eight hours? Their demand for an eight-hour shift was a bit unreasonable,” says a senior official of the Indian Film and TV Producers Council requesting anonymity.

He said a 12-hour shift has for decades been the industry norm. “Let there be a law to make eight-hour shift in the industry, we will comply with it,” he said.

Another demand of the workers was to clear their due payments – for which the industry norm is three months – within one month’s period.

“IFTPC has agreed to release the payment of contractual workers in a 30-day period, albeit only for the three month pandemic-period,” says Sanjay Bhatia, a member of the CINTAA’s executive committee.

Bhatia said that negotiations are ongoing with the producers’ body to not restrict the recommended changes to the pandemic period, and make them permanent.

Most representatives of the workers and artists’ associations who deal with the producers’ body are also part of the industry, leaving them vulnerable to a backlash from producers or broadcasters if they take decisions that go against the latter’s interests.

Ashish Rego, former treasurer of FWICE, says the film industry functions more like a “cartel” with the sole aim of maximising owner profits by minimising costs, and chucking people out of the industry when they don’t toe the line.

“I was treasurer of the FWICE at one point of time. The federation was quite strong then and a strong federation is not liked by the employers,” he shares.

“So recommendations were made at that point of time. We met the state’s labour minister and various other people in the power. But the producers didn’t like that. So whatever I or my colleagues did, we were made to pay for it.”

Rego had made a draft representation mentioning the long working hours, employee wages disproportionate to the work they do, and had clicked photos of the sets showing the “pathetic” working conditions there, sending them to Star International and the international body of broadcasters.

“And then because of the pressure that came from there [Star International], action was taken immediately by their Indian subsidiary,” Rego, who is also a music composer, recalls.

Subsequently he lost a lot of work. “I was doing 13-14 scores at a time, that came down to two scores. Even those who were still working with me were told not to by the people concerned.”

A 2019 FICCI-EY report valued the Indian “media and entertainment sector” at USD 25.7 billion. Mumbai, the hub of the Hindustani film industry, contributed 40% of the total revenue of the country’s film industry according to Deloitte, whose worth it estimated at USD 2.5 billion in 2019 and growing at 10% per year. Meanwhile the Indian television industry grew from USD 9.8 billion to 10.5 billion last year, a growth rate of 6.5%.

The financial havoc wreaked by the pandemic and lockdowns, said CINTAA’s Bhatia, has set in motion some significant changes in the way the industry works. He cited the creation of a grievance cell for industry workers and the arrival of the broadcasters’ association at the negotiating table with workers and producers’ associations, “something which has never happened before”, to agree on regulations for industry workers.

“There is a dialogue going on among the three stakeholders to come up with a white paper or an MOU to regularise the industry,” says Bhatia. He says the association has also asked the Union government to intervene and make basic rules for the industry.

Despite these signs of change, Rego remains sceptical, for many representations from the industry to the government have been made in the past, but from the employers’ point of view alone.

Producers, broadcasters, ”people who are actually the employers. Their perspective is financially driven; it’s driven singularly from their point of view, not from the workers,” he explained.

A media and entertainment lawyer requesting anonymity said the problems of informalised working conditions stem from the top – from the broadcasters, who work in an ad-hoc manner driven merely by the performance of the show.

“By the time shooting starts, the producer has already invested crores by way of hiring the set, artists, etc. During the shooting also the daily expenses go into hiring daily-wage workers, food etc,” he said.

“Now, the channel can also cancel the show midway, saying the TRPs are low. So channels can give producers lower amounts than contracted. The producers generally don’t file a lawsuit, because it would impact their relationship with the channel and they might not get future projects… They could also get blacklisted.”