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Child Actors Work Outside Law
by Greg Quill
Toronto Star Entertainment Reporter

She watched her 6-year-old boy dangling five metres in the air. He was wearing a rubber suit. The studio lights were just above him. He was sweating. He'd been there for 45 minutes. 

The director needed him up there, hanging, for another 10 minutes,  or however long it would take to complete the shot.

The mother warned the child was allowed only 45 minutes in camera position at a time without a 15-minute break. She looked around for an ACTRA steward. None on the set. She phoned the performers' union offices - closed. She phoned the office of her child's agent - closed.

The boy was lowered to the studio floor. It took 15 minutes to undress and dress him again in the rubber suit. The mother wanted a decent break. The parents of other youngsters told her they'd make sure he was blacklisted if she continued to fuss. The boy was put back in the sling for another 45 minutes under the lights.

This would go on for hours.


Canada has no labour laws protecting workers under age 16 for one simple reason: It's illegal to employ children. 

Except in the movie industry, where children work in droves.

The story of the 6 year old is one of hundreds that are circulated by the parents, teachers, managers, agents, and union

representatives of underage children working in Canada's burgeoning TV and movie etica">

In it are all the classic examples of the kinds of pressures and dangers ace="trebuchet ms, arial, helvetica">l actors who work without the protection of legislation - legislation that would enforce their reasonable work schedule and protected income.

The federal and provincial governments turn a blind eye, preferring to let the performers' union and producers find their own ways to settle working conditions for child actors in what are conveniently regarded as special circumstances.

After all, these kids aren't making matches for pennies, or working 18 hours a day in mines for a few scraps of bread, as they were in the early 1900s when child labour was prohibited.

The kids in Canada's movie and TV business earn good money and enjoy special status. Many of their parents are also lured by glamour, stardom and dreams of wealth, making it easy for abuses to be swept under the rug.

But it's only a matter of time before a child is seriously hurt on a movie set somewhere in Canada.

The industry in this country, thanks to our low dollar, is so lucrative that working standards are falling as quickly as the pressure to make more and more movies, TV shows and commercials increases.

Everyone assumes someone else is looking out for the kids.

Negotiations are under way between the Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) performers' guild for a new three-year national Independent Production Agreement (IPA), which regulates pay scales and work procedures for actors.

But there's not much hope that children will be better looked after on movie and TV sets.

Even dedicated members of the performers' guild point out the current contract, which expires in December, is weaker in language, more ambiguous, and more easily misinterpreted by producers looking for loopholes than the one before it.

Gema Zamprogna, who has passed unscathed through childhood in a TV world, mostly as a principal in the long-running Road To Avonlea, says the Screen Actors' Guild, the performers' union in California where she's now working on a cable TV movie, is ``much more powerful than ACTRA.

"Just one example: On the movie I'm doing, there are 15 or 20 kids working as extras during the day. When their contracted time is up, union stewards walk onto the set, take their hands and walk them out.

You'd never see that happen in Canada.''

Under the current IPA, a producer in Canada can work a minor (15 or younger) seven days a week, with no guaranteed day of rest. A 15-year-old can also work 33 hours out of 48, with no defined limit to the workday.

And although a producer must guarantee a tutor on set for youngsters who work within the school year, proper access to the tutor and adequate teaching time are not guaranteed.

After four years of lobbying by ssed legislation, based on laws in California and New York, specifically protecting child actors and their rights to safety, proper working conditions, education, and an invested income.

But Ontario is unlikely to see anything resembling similar political will in the near future.

The Harris government is unlikely to burden any business with new legislation, especially child labour laws just for the 900 young professional actors - one-tenth of ACTRA's Ontario membership - working in this province under guild contracts in movies, TV shows and commercials. And twice that many are said to be working in Ontario on non-union sites unprotected by ACTRA.

Recent estimates place the value of production work in Ontario this year alone at more than $600 million. More than 5,000 film permits were issued by the province's film office by the end of September. Labour Minister Jim Flaherty thinks things are just fine the way they are, with the IPA contract backed up by union monitoring, and, if push should come to shove, by the province's general health and safety regulations.

``The movie industry is unusual,'' Flaherty concedes, ``because in the normal course of its business, it employs underage people. So, it requires special steps.

``ACTRA for years has had guidelines dealing with health, safety, education, and parental involvement. Ministry officials have worked with ACTRA to support those guidelines. And people (parents and producers) feel the industry should be entitled to employ underage children as long as the guidelines are obeyed.

``The B.C. approach is intensely bureaucratic and riddled with red tape. It is not my preferred approach.''

Because the ministry has received no complaints about abuses of the IPA regulations relating to minors, Flaherty's happy ``to allow the industry to regulate itself.''

But Flaherty is prepared to react to any complaints.

``If any parent has any complaints, I would like to hear them, and would respond immediately.''

Trouble is, it's mostly parents who allow the abuses to continue and are least likely to complain, say ACTRA officials, talent agents, ministry workers, and industry insiders.

``It's sad. Too many parents in this business are living vicariously through their kids,'' says Laurie Farrance, a teacher who makes her living as an on-set tutor. The money she earns is good, she says, but she works at odd hours in cramped ad-hoc classrooms, and often at a moment's notice.

``Movies and television are so seductive, so insidious. Besides, from outside it seems such a glamourous life. Who wouldn't want fame, special treatment, wealth for their children?'' Start-up costs to get acting work are substantial: $30 a year to be an ACTRA apprentice, and, to work in commercials, $190 for the first of six working permits required by the guild before full membership is granted. The other five cost $140 each, and if the young actor is entitled to residual royalties for repeated broadcasts of a performance, ACTRA gets 10 per cent.

Actor apprentices with speaking parts in movies and TV shows must pay ACTRA between $105 and $130 for the first permit, and between $45 and $65 for each of the other five, depending on the number of lines.

ACTRA members working in Canadian movie and TV productions don't earn residuals.

Visible minority apprentices require only three permits for ACTRA membership.

The financial rewards can be enormous for child actors, ranging from $500 a day for TV work and $1,000 a day for commercial work to $10,000 a week for series regulars, and more for stars who, like Road To Avonlea's Sarah Polley, are able to throw away the IPA scale schedule and negotiate salaries directly with producers.

But what parents don't realize when they first push their youngsters toward the limelight is that all the burdens of maintaining their kids' professional careers are theirs alone.

By insisting that parents take legal responsibility for their working youngsters - including being on set with them and supervising their welfare, education, and income till age 16 - the producers, union, and even government have let themselves off the hook.

``Even worse, most of the IPA regulations relating to minors can be thrown out when the parent signs a waiver allowing the production company to assign one of their own employees to be the guardian,'' Farrance says. ``That makes a mockery of the collective agreement.''

As a result, young children can find themselves working longer hours than the agreement allows - usually for under-the-table cash bonuses - and in increasingly dangerous situations, including stunt work, flying, fires, explosions, and water.

Recently on a TV movie set outside Montreal, young actors and their parents were housed in a motel with no restaurant, and the nearest greasy spoon was a 15-minute drive away.

The producer, obliged to provide transport only to and from the set, served pizza and subs at dinner. The parents scoured the motel for electric kettles to make instant oatmeal breakfasts on the set every morning.

After three weeks, no tutor had turned up and the parents threatened to call ACTRA and have the production shut down. Within hours, their demands for better food, transport and an on-set tutor were met.

On another set in rural Ontario, after 12 hours work, a young actor was expected back in eight hours, even though his home was a two-hour drive away.

``If the crew can handle a quick turnaround, a professional actor should be able to as well,'' a worried father was told by an assistant director.

A 13-year-old regular in a Canadian series was asked to fall backward over a small wall into a fountain. When his guardian objected, the show's stunt co-ordinator was brought in to choreograph a safe back flip.

But seconds before the ``Action'' call, the director intervened out of the guardian's earshot, and the boy performed the stunt without the safety step, supposedly for greater dramatic effect. He wasn't hurt.

When a Canadian producer was told one of his series regulars, a Grade 12 student, required a physics and math specialist as a tutor because she was studying advanced physics, he balked.

``What does she want to be,'' the producer snarled, ``an actor or a scientist?''

The parents, agents and actors who described these scenes asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

Even babies as young as 3 weeks are recruited for TV and movie work, usually in post-natal scenes, usually covered in cold gel to simulate a just-born look.

And on the set of one popular Canadian children's TV series, a fume-filled, dusty paint and carpentry shop sits in the middle of the main set, which itself is poorly ventilated. The air has been deemed unfit by air quality inspectors, whose recommendations have been forwarded to the producer, but remain unheeded, say the adult actors who work there.

Even worse, many young actors find that after a few years playing cute roles in commercials, as extras, even as performers with speaking parts, they have no money to show for their efforts.

``Many, many kids in this country would be better off if their parents had never touched the money,'' says Lou Zamprogna, who was a child actor in Britain, and, with his wife, runs a well-known dance school in Hamilton, Ont. He's the father of actors Gema, 22, and twins Dominic and Amanda, 19 (the movie FX).

The Zamprogna kids spent their childhood years as professional actors, with their father banking their earnings, and are still working in movies and television, in Canada and in the U.S. ``I don't think it's right for parents to sacrifice their own lives, to do it out of love,'' says Zamprogna. ``I can see a managerial fee of, say, 10 per cent. But to assume the money is the parents' is terrible.''

Jackie Coogan, the 1930s American child movie star whose fortune was stolen by his handlers and his parents, fought for years to change the California child labour legislation - now called the Coogan Law.

And B. C. is the first government in Canada to adopt a key element of that law, forcing parents of child actors to submit 25 per cent of the child's gross earnings, above a minimum of $5,000, and with complete employment records, to the Public Trustee. The money is turned back with interest to the actors when they come of age.

American children's rights advocate Paul Petersen has been working to spark a similar pro-legislation movement in Ontario and other provinces. Nothing's changed yet. One Toronto actor, at age 16 and after five years of solid work, asked his parents where his money was.

``You're living in it,'' his father said, pointing at the family's expensive new home.

Those sorts of parents are in the minority, says Alex Taylor, director of collective bargaining for the B. C. Union Of Performers, ACTRA's West Coast branch, who helped spearhead the legislation.

Still, when the Coogan Law was passed in B.C., there was a vigorous backlash in the media, ``mostly instigated by parents who made it sound as if the NDP government was seizing their money,'' Taylor says.

Ferne Downey, ACTRA's Toronto unit president, is well aware of the spotlight shone by the new B. C. laws on working conditions for children in her domain. She says the issue is high on the IPA negotiations agenda.

``More children are working in the business and in commercials every year.''

Still, ACTRA's policy is that the responsibility for the child actor's welfare rests ultimately with the parents. Their experience, nurturing skills, and understanding of the realities of working on TV and movie sets vary wildly, Downey admits.

``Most parents don't understand the process. The union does what it can. We help inform parents in special children's committee presentations (topics include how to handle casting directors, negotiate contracts, deal with agents and directors, what to expect on the set).

``We explain the workings of the business in meetings of our children's committee. The union also publishes a quarterly newsletter, Branch Line, in which these issues are written about and continuing concerns about cur rent productions are addressed.

``This is a business, we tell parents. Your child is an investment, an asset you must protect.''

There's also an orientation meeting for parents as part of the apprentice membership program, where time limits, work schedules, and pay scales are explained. And performer-members volunteer their time, talk to and watch young actors on set, and keep the union informed.

``Our best advice to parents is to trust their instincts,'' said Downey.

``If they sense something is wrong, they must contact the steward on that production.''

That's one of the problems. ACTRA employs only six full-time stewards to monitor all movie, TV, and commercial production in Ontario. Not one is dedicated to working minors, says union representative Alex Gill.

And despite dozens of reports of abuse the union hears officially and unofficially every year, only three fines have been levied in the past three years against offending producers - none for violating the IPA minors' regulations, he says.

``Fines can run from $3,000 to $10,000, but usually the threat of disruption is enough to bring producers into line.''

Most infractions occur in the production of TV commercials, where non-union workers are increasingly preferred, where performers and crew members are often paid under-the-table for unscheduled work and overtime and sign away residual rights, and where an entire commercial can be shot in a matter of hours, behind the backs and even under the noses of guild stewards.

Children working in non-union productions in Canada outnumber union-accredited children by as many as two-to-one, industry insiders say.

U.S. companies, lured by Canada's low dollar and in the absence of child labour legislation in Ontario, are employing more and more children. Commercials, with or without union sanction, are regarded by the industry as training ground for young actors.

Problems are usually solved quietly. The money a TV commercial production would have been fined by ACTRA is usually donated instead to a children's charity, children's aid or education assistance programs. Productions are rarely shut down.

ACTRA is not straining itself to seek special legislation to ensure and enforce the rights of children.

``The union would rather work in an intelligently self-regulated milieu,'' says Downey, echoing the sentiments of labour minister Flaherty.

Laws for children working in the movie and TV industry ``would require an especially complex learning process at the provincial labour ministry in order to be fair and effective,'' says Downey.

``Besides, government-imposed regulations don't always give you what you need in terms of support. We don't want them imposing regulations that might be appropriate only for regular business. This business is special.

``Rather than have a government-imposed relationship between the union and management, we're creating a code of ethical conduct for talent representatives and agents. The language in our agreement with the producers needs to be tougher, but protection, grievance and disciplinary procedures should be the result of a joint process (involving producers).''

However, making it difficult for producers to work in Ontario is exactly what ACTRA doesn't want to do, say many seasoned actors and agents.

``Everyone in this business is so afraid they'll lose work if they take too many obvious steps to protect the children,'' says one veteran Canadian actress who works on a Canadian TV series with children. She asked not to be identified.

``That's why the government never gets to hear these horror stories, and why so few of them are ever dealt with by ACTRA.'' Unlike most of the insiders interviewed for this story, the actress is not so quick to blame mothers and fathers.

``My God! You can't blame parents for not knowing how this business works, and the kinds of tricks producers get up to,'' she says. ``That takes years. Most of them assume the basics - working conditions, food, rest and exercise, pay scales, education, counselling - are taken care of.

``Most parents trust their agents to get all this stuff sorted out in the contract. Some agents do make up for what's missing in the ambiguous language of the production agreement, but most don't.''

A prominent agent, who specializes in children and fears a backlash from producers if identified, adds: ``If there's not going to be legislation to protect working children, there should at least be a separate children's unit within the guild.

``There's a fear in ACTRA that we come from a small and insignificant place. They see all this production going on in Canada and the guild is mad because adult Canadian actors aren't getting the lion's share of the work. Still, they don't want to do anything that will chase the money away.''

Gema Zamprogna has no axe to grind with ACTRA or Sullivan Entertainment, which produced Avonlea.

She says she enjoyed ``very pleasant working conditions on the series, ``though sometimes I was in tears after working too many hours.

``I was lucky. My father was never intimidated. I've seen so many parents afraid to step in for fear their children would never work again. My father often tried to convince them that they had every right to object if they were worried about their kids.''

Still, she admits, ``There was no real ACTRA presence on the Avonlea set, which is strange because it was a family show with child actors. A steward would show up from time to time, but not often enough for me to know who they were.''

To keep their feet on the ground, the Zamprogna kids had household chores, and regular family meals and gatherings they were expected to attend.

Zamprogna worries about young actors, no longer minors, in Grades 11 and 12 who are assigned to tutors with no knowledge of advanced subjects, and about students at schools that ostracize young working actors.

``So many schools have the attitude that if you don't attend regular classes, you're on your own. The result is what you'd expect - poor grades and failure, and after the acting work is over, depression, with no way of making up for the lost time or coping with the real world.

``I think legislation is a great idea, absolutely necessary. Not for the small violations, but it would certainly prevent things getting out of hand.''

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