Revolting Les Misérables hair and makeup staff close to victory over conditions and pay


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The Independent Culture

On Sunday night, Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell accepted the Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling for Les Misérables.

“It’s quite overwhelming,” Ms Westcott said in her speech. “But we can only accept a little bit of this, it’s all down to our fantastic team.”

In a case of life imitating art, the predominantly female workers in that team shocked the producers of Les Mis, by taking to the barricades and demanding a change to working conditions and pay.

A year on, and following a meeting between the union and the employers this week, sources close to the negotiations believe a wholesale overhaul of the terms is close.

Tom Bell, supervisory official at Bectu who represents hair and makeup, said: “The process is heading towards the final straight.” He continued: “It was about putting together a feature film agreement that is fit for purpose. Hair and makeup were nowhere a year ago, but now they’re at the centre of it.”

The fight, according to the union representative, held clear parallels with the women who fought for equal pay at the Ford factory in 1968, a story that was dramatised in the film Made in Dagenham.

On Monday night, just hours after Les Mis’s Oscar triumph in the hair and makeup category, the UK’s media and entertainment union Bectu, held a get-together for those working in the industry to update them on negotiations with the employers association Pact.

The room was supposed to hold 260 people but 320 turned up, many travelling from all over the UK, and some even flying in for the occasion.

One professional stood up and said: “The important thing about these negotiations is we are going to be paid for every hour we work. It will be the end of the old culture, and we won’t be giving any hours for free.” Her speech was met with huge applause.

Another said: “It was all about us sticking together. If we support each other, they will know our worth and we won’t be abused in the future.”

Mr Bell told The Independent: “It was amazing. I’ve never been at an event where we almost had to turn people away.” A record number of 51 joined Bectu on the night.

He reminded those gathered at the event of the conditions on the set of Les Mis, even while they celebrated the Oscar win. “The crew were run ragged, hair and makeup more than any. They were all sick of the treatment.”

Filming regularly overran, sometimes into days off and often professionals worked without extra pay. The plight of hair and makeup professionals, as well as those in the costume department, was more acute because of the so-called “goodwill hours”.

They would have to turn up early to prepare, and stay late to clear up, but would only be paid for the hours that the camera was rolling.

While Les Miserables was by no means alone, it was a particularly tough for the hair and makeup departments, with hundreds of extras who needed work before shooting. The employers started really worrying over threats that A-list actors like Russell Crowe might have had to take their own makeup off.

The union demanded changes to the terms of employment which have hardly been changed since 1993, apply without distinction to blockbuster movie as well as tiny independent production, and which were rarely observed by the employers anyway.

The agreements will govern all who work on film sets except the electricians and construction workers, who have their own deals in place. They aim to end the “buyout culture” of getting a lump sum for certain work – “buying out the blood in your veins,” as Mr Bell said – and scrap goodwill hours.

 “Les Mis’ hair and makeup brought up the issue of prep and wrap, so much so it’s now the centre of negotiations,” he added.

Officials from Bectu met those from Pact on Wednesday afternoon, and they believe an agreement is close. Pact now has to consult with its members before lock-in meetings with the union in the coming weeks.

One source close to the negotiations said: “We hope to finalise things at the end of March. This is very good news. We are definitely moving in the right direction.”