As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Real-Life Slumdogs

This item from yesterday is going to get more and more ink as Slumdog Millionaire received more and more awards.

Their roles in Slumdog Millionaire have won them international acclaim and seen them rub shoulders with the film’s glamorous stars and its British director.

But the reality of life for Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail is far closer to that of the characters they play in the story of love, violent crime and extreme poverty in India.

The child actors’ parents have accused the hit film’s producers of exploiting and underpaying the eight-year-olds, disclosing that both face uncertain futures in one of Mumbai’s most squalid slums.

Rubina was paid £500 for a year’s work ($710) while Azharuddin received £1,700 ($2414), according to the children's parents.

However a spokesman for the film’s American distributors, Fox Searchlight, disputed this saying the fees were more than three times the average annual salary an adult in their neighbourhood would receive. They would not disclose the actual sum.

Both children were found places in a local school and receive £20 a month for books and food. However, they continue to live in grinding poverty and their families say they have received no details of the trust funds set up in their names. Their parents said that they had hoped the film would be their ticket out of the slums, and that its success had made them realise how little their children had been paid.

The optics of a movie poised to make a $100 million dollars and two of the stars living in poverty is really bad. It is not the responsibility of the producers to end poverty for the lives of these kids and their families, but compared to how actors are paid in the United States, this is kind of outrageous. And the reason for that is that actors have aggressive, activist unions in this country to prevent this from happening. If a film is showing globally, the pay scales for everyone in the film probably ought to be standardized, as well. And this is an example of, as Dylan Matthews says, the importance of global unions.

Perhaps it's too much to ask for studios to use the same day rates when filming overseas as they do when filming domestically, but they should at the very least be obligated to let foreign actors collectively bargain. India's a special case, in that Bollywood actors already have a union from which foreign production teams can hire. Other countries with smaller film industries might not have enough actors to form a strong bargaining unit. What is to prevent an actor in, say, Laos from being exploited?

This is why we've got to get functioning global unions organized. We have federations, yes, but you don't see ITUC negotiating contracts with multinational corporations. Those kinds of negotiations need to happen if we're to avoid loopholes like this. As long as national unions are striking separate deals, and corporations are operating without much concern for borders, labor just won't be able to keep up. If, on the other hand, SAG and FWICE etc. joined into a Global Actors' Union which could then negotiate a global contract with Warners Bros, Sony, and the like, the studios won't be able to skirt off to the third world when they don't want to pay actors at union rates.

Film companies are constantly seeking out tax breaks and cost controls (not on their expansive marketing budgets, but on the raw costs), which is why we have runaway production. A level playing field would eliminate the possibility for them to race to the bottom. Union membership in the United States is finally back on the rise after a long period of decline. But in this interdependent, globalized world, the biggest disincentive to outsourcing would be global unions.

...while I'm on the union topic, a word about the rift between SEIU and UHW in California, which has led to UHW breaking away and trying to form their own union. I have friends on both sides of this rift, so I'm in no position to take anyone's side. Ultimately, I find these intra-union debates to be somewhat healthy and grounding for the labor movement. They are a model of what can happen in a bottom-up democratized setting. It's not always clean, but I'd rather it be messy, honestly. The other thing is that unions have un-affiliated and re-affiliated countless times historically. The Change to Win/AFL-CIO split was supposed to be groundbreaking and unprecedented, and now four years later they're talking about reuniting. There are real issues at stake here, but with the continuum of disunity and reunification, I'd just as well stay out of something so dynamic it'll probably change within a matter of months.

And this won't hurt the Employee Free Choice Act at all. That's stupid - there's such a thing as common ground.

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