Exploitation of background actors needs to stop

Dr. Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Dr. Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Published Jul 1, 2024



The acting industry and exciting world of fame has been tainted with many labour grievances in South Africa simply because this industry has remained largely unregulated for decades on end.

As South Africans, we have enjoyed the best of talent on our televisions as well as in theatre with little or no concern for how these skilled and talented actors and artists earn a livelihood.

Starting out as a background actor of extra can be a stressful, lonely, and difficult path. As much as many believe that the need for a budding background actor to engage with an agent is unnecessary, it is necessary in South Africa where there are no regulated protocols to follow to audition for background acting within film and TV.

The overall climate is predominantly dominated by networks. Similar to contractual employment in other sectors, actors and background actors are employed without any labour protection and benefits.

The lack of governance in this regard has allowed agents to be dubious, mislead, and lure background actors to travel to film sets under false pretences. This trajectory of behaviour is directly related to the industry being unregulated for decades.

In 2021, South African society should have been moved to take action by the fact that renowned and established actresses such as Sharlene Surti-Richards passed away with no funds for medical care. This emphasises how unregulated this sector of our society is.

Now in 2024, agents recruiting background actors are said to be having a detrimental impact on extras on set of “Shaka ILembe”.

The numerous complaints that have been lodged by the background actors that self-funded themselves on the set (Greater Cradle Nature Reserve) of “Shaka ILembe” have spurred on much debate around the industry, their regulations, related labour laws as well as contractual agreements between agents and these aspiring actors.

Many of these background actors who have been living at the Greater Cradle Nature Reserve are waiting for a day’s work on the set of Shaka ILembe.

When they are employed for the day, they are afforded meals together with the crew and other actors. Bomb Productions (producer of “Shaka iLembe”) has been regularly providing meals for all the actors and crew whilst on set.

However, off the set, there is a no work no pay policy, which then also leaves these background actors without resources to purchase necessities such as meals and toiletries.

According to Jack Devnarain (SAGA Chairman) agents have promised these budding background actors meals and accommodation, irrespective of whether they are called to work or not, prior to their arrival at The Greater Cradle Nature Reserve.

Sadly, many of these agents have failed to keep their promises.

Presently, many background actor agents are predominantly unregulated and have a trajectory in South Africa for not being officially registered as tax-paying businesses. These ‘agents’ have a tendency to claim a commission from a recruit’s daily wage and do not maintain their verbal promises.

Their advertisements are common on social media platforms, which attract individuals who believe that they can become potential actors through gaining experience as a background actor. Furthermore, it is appealing to many because this type of work requires no specific skill.

The continual mistreatment and racketeering that has been taking place in this industry has to end. Many of these background actor agents choose not to be registered as legitimate businesses, do not offer their recruits any form of contractual agreements, and primarily run their businesses on their wits.

They are coercive and influential, especially with newcomers in the industry and have a tendency to be opportunistic. Agents go to the extent of charging a tentative new recruit for meetings with producers, skill development workshops, professional photography and access to auditions.

The Commission can be as much as 25% per day of the R300 (which is what these background actors earn on the set of “Shaka ILembe”). Furthermore, many of these background actors are manipulated to believe that these agents have great influence amidst film and theatre producers or production companies.

Some agents even persuade these background actors into believing that they possibly can be employed continuously through nepotism. The manner in which newcomers, as well as experienced background actors are managed and treated is problematic in South Africa.

Film and television production houses need to collaborate with the Department of Employment and labour (DEL) to urgently assist in curbing this type of labour exploitation.

Once again as we enter a new political period, we should be more articulate and forthcoming of the changes we would like in our society. One is that this industry needs the support of the Department of Employment and Labour in curbing these practices, as well as regulating this casual employment in the long term.

This type of employment should not be allowed without a contract. Obligations towards new recruits have to be clearly outlined prior to these background actors travelling to a film set.

In addition, a minimal daily wage should be stipulated for background actors as many come from impoverished backgrounds.They have not had the resources to access any skills training or formal educational qualifications.

A required intervention also sets the benchmark for the new term of the presidency to deal with corruption and unethical business within every sector.

South Africa has a rich history of story telling of oral traditions and cultures. Theatre and film have been a means to sustain and educate fellow South Africans of our numerous cultural and ethnic diversities.

However, this tradition will be damaged if the industry is not protected by good governance and regulation. The SA Guild of Actors has a purpose to ensure that good governance is upheld within this sector, but it is unrealistic if agents are not registered and operate unscrupulously.

The arts and culture sector of our country has immeasurable value and has become an attraction for international tourists and businesses alike. However, internally we need to support and sustain the industry through appropriate corrective measures to prevent the exploitation of actors and which add value to this difficult and financially challenged sector.

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix & Sunningdale).

Daily News

Related Topics:

actorfilmlabour law