Control-shift!

MAKING a living working casual shifts was on the agenda at the March London Freelance Branch meeting. Our speakers were Richard Palmer - Father of Chapel (FoC, workplace-based NUJ rep) at Express Newspapers and our own Magda Ibrahim, who combines commissioned work with shifts - currently in "an absolutely brilliant job" as a shift reporter at the Standard. Experiences were also shared by members of the audience.

Richard Palmer and Magda Ibrahim

Richard Palmer and Magda Ibrahim

Introducing Richard and Magda, LFB co-chair Nick Renaud-Komiya explained that due to the sensitivity of some of the issues involved, this month's meeting was under the Chatham House Rule. So "It's OK to relay the things that people say here," but not to "identify the speakers or... the organisations that they are affiliated to".

About half Richard's role as FoC is "working hard for better conditions for casuals," which includes helping them "fight stress." As coronavirus began to take told, he was fighting for sick pay for casuals - including some vulnerable to covid-19 through pre-existing conditions who needed to self-isolate. We heard how, long before covid-19 was a thing, casuals were still turning up to work when sick as they couldn't afford to take time off to recover.

At some national papers, a "huge" proportion of the workforce had been casualised - even some section editors. Photographers may be on the rota five or six days a week since the 1990s but still not on staff. A member present described doing "exactly the same job" on casual shifts in two different offices of the same news group, "paid as a contractor, or... a paid as a casual worker", paid "a very different way" for the two jobs.

Then there was panic over "IR35" rule changes (see here) leading media outlets to cut casual shifts. Whatever the outcome, such changes are stressful. We heard of the suicide last year of one regular casual (not an NUJ member). Among the many factors that seem to have contributed to them taking their own life were overwork and being extremely worried about being made redundant.

For those with young children, the night shift may fit around family life better than morning shifts. One complaint we heard from several sources is at the close of an eight-hour shift suddenly being asked to do "another four hours on top of that". Some casuals manage to negotiate a higher rate for their overtime on the spot, while former casuals on one national's picture desk routinely worked an extra half an hour a day without being paid for it.

Another issue is that "nobody tells you anything," we heard. A casual starting a night shift with a new client had worked out how to take three night buses to get home because they hadn't been told the company would pay their cab fare.

Holiday pay poster; Image: NUJ

The NUJ's holiday pay campaign poster

It's not all bad. Casuals in the Reach group earn pension rights and holiday pay, while one regular casual was happy to report that a client had remembered to invite them to the corporate Christmas party: that made them feel they'd got "the support of your colleagues".

Another cause for optimism was dailies expanding their websites rapidly and taking on more casuals to do "click-bait" sites. Casuals on the websites are, though, expected to work extra hours and complete more tasks - more Search Engine Optimisation than core journalism - for no extra money, with "flexible working" including more requests to do night shifts. As a result, "younger web journalists" who do casual shifts on the newspapers' websites are suddenly joining the union in greater numbers and turning up to NUJ Chapel (workplace) meetings from which they've previously stayed away.

NUJ Freelance Organiser Pamela Morton, who regrettably couldn't speak at the meeting, reminds members doing casual shifts they may be eligible for holiday pay and directs members to the NUJ's Holiday Pay campaign: see www.londonfreelance.org/fl/1911holi.html