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Fresh calls to scrap controversial Hobbit Law after misconduct claims at Wellington film studios

Two independent inquiries into misconduct allegations at two top film studios have led to fresh calls to fully repeal the controversial 'Hobbit Law'.

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The law would be partially overturned if a new bill passes but academics, and the man at the centre of a now-famous employment case say that doesn't go far enough Source: 1 NEWS

Wellington film studios Weta Workshop and Weta Digital have both ordered independent inquiries following allegations of misconduct.

The former film worker at the centre of a now-famous employment case says the allegations show the Hobbit Law needs to go, and the new Screen Industry Workers Bill - which would overturn parts of the law - doesn’t go far enough to protect workers.

Model-maker James Bryson says he’s “stunned but unsurprised … the culture of bullying I fell victim to within the film industry remains unchanged”.

He says he was bullied while working on the Lord of the Rings films for Weta Workshop in the early 2000s. His case in 2005 became the first employment case to go to the Supreme Court in New Zealand, but he says it all started as a personal grievance.

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“It was about bullying, about workplace disadvantage, it was a situation that had been ongoing for at least a year. The machinations were that I was let go.”

For the case to be taken, Bryson’s lawyers first had to prove he was an employee, not a contractor. On that front, Bryson won.

“I'd worked their hours, I'd done what I was told, when I was told … that could change on an hourly basis. I wasn't a contractor,” he said.

Five years later, his case was cited as a concern by Warner Brothers during negotiations around the filming location of The Hobbit movies.

In 2010, the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill, otherwise known as the Hobbit Law passed under urgency.

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1 NEWS earlier revealed allegations of bullying, harassment and misconduct at the company. Source: 1 NEWS

The law blocks film workers, nearly 90 percent of whom are classed as contractors, from challenging their employment status.

A number of current and former Weta Digital workers have told 1 NEWS the current legislation is a major factor in alleged behaviour and culture issues at the company.

“The reason they can set that kind of behaviour is what they call [the] Hobbit Law … you can be gone in an afternoon,” one said.

“They don't need much of an inclination to cancel your contract and go for the other person who likes their culture.”

Bryson says he’s “really chagrined” to think his bullying case was a catalyst for the Hobbit Law, and says the current legislation makes workers vulnerable to abuse.

“I think it's absolutely cut and dry. It makes it almost inevitable that the situation as it stands would be abused by management.”

He wants to see the Hobbit Law fully repealed.

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“I understand why they would like the contractor label to stick if productions are only going for two or three days like TV commercials and [the] way the industry used to be but … people can work in it as a career for 20 years.”

“There's really no excuse for calling these people contractors anymore. The industry needs to grow up.”

The proposed changes

The Screen Industry Workers Bill, which is currently before Parliament, would overturn some parts of the Hobbit Law, but would also retain some key aspects of it.

If the Bill passes, screen workers would still be considered contractors, and wouldn’t be able to challenge their employment status. They also wouldn’t be able to strike during contract negotiations.

Proponents of the Bill say it would mean more protections against bullying and harassment, and it would allow collective bargaining.

Victoria University Professor Gordon Anderson says the new Bill isn’t an improvement on the Hobbit Law. He has a raft of concerns with both pieces of legislation, and says they should be scrapped.

“I assume they have shredders at Parliament. That would seem to be the obvious answer.”

He says there’s no reason why the film industry should be governed by separate laws to other industries, and that in reality, there would still be “significant” barriers to collective bargaining if the new Bill is passed.

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“You have to go to Government agencies to get approval to bargain. There is a much stronger possibility of being able to prevent that through anti-union action.”

“It takes a much wider group of employees out of the employee category and puts them in a condition where these basic rights don't apply to them. It sets up a bureaucracy and set of processes which we don't need, all of which are now covered more effectively under existing employment law.”

Victoria University Associate Professor Deborah Jones says she’s “dubious” about the benefits of the Screen Industry Workers Bill.

“We don't have any other industry in New Zealand where we say it's okay, for the sake of overseas companies, for us to forbid the employment rights for these workers that any other worker would have.”

She also worries that those who seek support for bullying and harassment could get a black mark against their names in the industry if word got out.

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“You might get support for that particular situation that you're addressing, but where do you get jobs afterwards? I think that [feeling of] ‘I'll never get a job again’ is a really scary part of it.”

Workplace Relations Minister Andrew Little says the select committee which considered the Bill has heard “a variety of views”.

He says industry leaders also need to take responsibility to fix problems.

“Regardless of what happens with the Bill, in the end legislation alone is not enough to address long-standing workplace culture issues in the industry.

“The reality is it will take leadership from those in the industry - owners, producers, and investors - to make this a desirable industry in which to work.”