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Arts The perils of being 'casual’ at the CBC: How precarious work affects the public broadcaster’s temporary employees

The Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

When Samantha Garvey landed a job at CBC Radio in Kamloops, B.C., in December, 2012, she was so excited that she took two photographs to memorialize the occasion: One of the e-mail with the good news, and another of her new @cbc.ca e-mail address. “When I went to journalism school, I didn’t want to work [just anywhere] as a journalist,” she recalled recently. “I wanted to work at CBC. That was the goal.”

But Garvey had gotten only a toehold, landing a spot on the roster of employees known as “casuals” who work week-to-week – or sometimes day-to-day – without any job security. After a few years, she moved to Vancouver for more opportunity, where she often found herself working overtime without pay, trying to stand out in hopes of getting a staff job. Instead, she began hearing from other casuals who, like her, said they felt “disposable” and on tenterhooks, afraid of being cut loose if they accidentally said the wrong thing. “The job was really hurting me,” Garvey says. “The culture was always: Keep your head down and do your best, you’ll get rewarded with shifts.”

It was too much. A little more than five years after taking those celebratory photographs, crushed by the pressures of her precarious employment and with her health suffering, Garvey walked out the door for the last time.

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Her experience is a glimpse into the little-seen plight of almost 1,100 non-permanent employees of CBC/Radio-Canada, who sometimes work for years as second-class citizens in vain hopes of securing staff positions.

Temps and contract workers make up more than one-quarter of the public broadcaster’s unionized work force, which comprises approximately 4,130 English-language CBC and French-language Radio-Canada employees outside of Quebec and Moncton. The figures were provided to The Globe and Mail by their union, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG).

Their situation became a flash point during recent contract negotiations between the broadcaster and the union, after dozens of temp workers signed a letter alleging that their precarious status hinders both their mental health and the quality of CBC’s journalism. And they alleged that CBC/Radio-Canada, which trumpets its efforts to make its work force more diverse, was treating its most racially diverse cohort as dispensable.

The Globe and Mail heard directly from more than a dozen current and former non-permanent employees, most of whom shared their experiences under the condition that they were speaking not for attribution, out of fear CBC would blacklist them if their names were made public. (Even those who had landed staff jobs feared reprisals.) They were passionate about the broadcaster and its mission, but demoralized over their treatment.

Although they dwell at the bottom of the seniority ranks, they are essential to the organization: 19.5 per cent of working hours performed by CMG members in January across the entirety of CBC/Radio-Canada’s TV, radio and online operations were done by temps or contract employees. In CBC Radio’s Network Talk department, where they work as producers and in other key roles on shows such as The Current, q, The Sunday Edition and As It Happens, that figure rises to almost 23 per cent.

(The numbers are roughly consistent from year to year.)

Temp work is a long-standing issue at the public broadcaster: It was the primary sticking point of the bitter two-month lockout in 2005, and CMG members urged their union to make it a priority in the recent round of contract talks last winter.

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In March, CMG members voted 80 per cent in favour of a new collective agreement that includes provisions to convert 41 of the approximately 1,100 temp and contract employees to permanent status. But a number of employees told The Globe that, while they were pleased for their co-workers who would be hired on staff, they were disappointed the contract didn’t address the corrosive structural problems of non-permanent work: a lack of agency among workers, no formal feedback process, an inability to plan for the future and poor morale stemming from acute vulnerability. Some temps felt they had been teased for years with the prospect of a permanent position which never materialized.

Grasping the full extent of the issues can be a challenge, in part because CBC/Radio-Canada has three broad categories of non-permanent employees, whose distinctions sometimes confuse even people who work there.

And so, first, a definitional primer: “Casuals” (also known as “short-term temporary workers”) are brought on for assignments lasting less than 13 weeks – although they could have an endless series of those. “Long-term temporary workers” are engaged for terms lasting 13 weeks or more. “Contract” employees have engagements lasting up to one year. (There are no limits to the number of times someone can sign a contract.)

Those who work at least 13 weeks are eligible for some form of benefits, which the broadcaster says are “better benefits than [those for] most temporary employees in the market.” (A survey of other media companies confirmed this.)

Casuals and contract employees work side-by-side with their permanent colleagues, often performing exactly the same job: As a radio or podcast producer or associate producer, that might include creating a show lineup, pitching and producing interviews or other segments, choosing music, writing on-air or online stories, creating online video content and working on social-media posts.

Officially – that is, according to the collective agreement – non-permanent workers at CBC/Radio-Canada are supposed to be deployed sparingly: To “backfill” a position normally occupied by an absent staff member (who is on a secondment or a leave of absence); for an emergency; or for brief periods on a special project that calls for special skills not normally required on a regular basis, such as election coverage or sports events. But workers say those limitations are routinely flouted.

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CBC/Radio-Canada is not the only media organization using temps and contract workers. TV operations within Bell Media, Rogers Media and Corus also used freelancers or casuals to backfill.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

One former casual producer who had recently joined the full-time staff told The Globe that, while he understood the need for temp workers, he believed CBC was exploiting the system. Others echoed his words. Another former casual said he felt he had been auditioning on a daily basis for five years.

CBC/Radio-Canada is not the only media organization using temps and contract workers. Union representatives for TV operations within Bell Media (which owns CTV), Rogers Media (Citytv) and Corus (Global TV) confirmed those companies also use freelancers or casuals to backfill. But the practice has not exploded into a major labour issue at those companies in the way it has at CBC/Radio-Canada, in part because some high-profile operations, such as CTV’s National News, are not unionized. And the unions at CBC/Radio-Canada have always been muscular presences.

In fact, the letter signed last fall by dozens of non-permanent employees was read into the record at the beginning of labour negotiations between CMG and CBC/Radio-Canada. Calling their situation “unsustainable,” the workers beseeched CBC to recognize their uniquely vulnerable status. “CBC could not function without the hard work of casual and non-permanent employees. And yet we are treated like we are dispensable.”

Signed by 70 workers, including some who had started as casuals and later secured permanent positions, the letter explained that they “work in a state of constant fear and anxiety. We don’t know if we’ll work tomorrow, let alone next month. We don’t take breaks, and [we] work unpaid overtime in the hopes of impressing our bosses and being offered yet another short-term stint.”

It added that their “mental health is also impacted by the innate power imbalance borne out of precarity. We feel unable to call out editorial missteps and instances of bullying and harassment, and have a strong sense of feeling undervalued.”

Samantha Garvey left more than six months before the letter was written, but, when told about it by The Globe, she said its contents rang true: In her final months at CBC Vancouver, she says she began taking anti-depressants to treat what she described as work-related mental-health issues.

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The letter also alleged that, while “CBC claims to be a champion of diversity and inclusion … a disproportionate number of its casual and non-permanent employees are women and visible minorities.”

The Globe and Mail has seen the names of those who signed the letter; the broadcaster’s management has not. And while many of those who signed the letter identify as diverse, The Globe was not able to confirm how representative they are of the wider temp population, because CBC/Radio-Canada says it does not track the diversity of its short-term work force.

This is not the first time the vulnerability of temporary workers at the public broadcaster has been flagged. After CBC fired radio host Jian Ghomeshi in the fall of 2014 amid allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment, the third-party workplace investigator Janice Rubin diagnosed that the broadcaster was beset with a “host culture” which served to placate thorny on-air talent. Rubin’s formal report, issued in April, 2015, called on CBC to take steps to protect its younger workers, whom she noted have difficulty “securing reliable work, and establishing a career at the CBC,” in part because they may find themselves forced to endure inappropriate behaviour “in order to maintain their employment.” Rubin wrote that those workers “eloquently described the cost to them, financially, emotionally and otherwise, of being professionally insecure.”

In response, the broadcaster struck a joint committee with the CMG that meets regularly to address problems brought to its attention.

In an e-mailed statement, CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson said CBC “takes very seriously” the concerns of temporary workers who feel undervalued or bullied. “Whenever an issue surfaces and is flagged by any employee, we deal with it swiftly, thoroughly and ensure there is no negative impact on the individual who came forward.”

But some non-permanent employees say that doesn’t address the day-to-day challenges of working in an environment where they fear that pushing hard on a particular angle or story – usually considered an admirable trait in a creative environment or a newsroom – could risk a disagreement with a supervising producer that results in them not getting more work. They also note that permanent staff undergo annual performance reviews, but there is no such formal mechanism for managers to give feedback to temps or contract workers which might help develop their talent or correct a problem before it is too late.

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Bria John, a former casual employee at CBC Radio, says getting a 13-week contract at the company would be a 'luxury' for most temporary or casual workers.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Like Samantha Garvey, Bria John was thrilled when she landed a casual position at CBC Radio in 2016 as a digital producer, creating content for the website of the flagship arts and music show, q. But she soon found herself moved from one show to another, which made it difficult to build up any momentum or a strong reputation among managers who might eventually have had a say in hiring her permanently. During one especially busy stretch, she said, she was working four different jobs: one day a week on each of Podcast Playlist, Sunday Edition and Cross-Country Checkup, and two days a week helping plan an internal training event. The jobs bled into each other, through after-hours e-mails and other commitments. “I felt like I was working all of those jobs, all week long,” she said.

Last fall, she and about 40 temps and casuals gathered in a meeting room at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto to share their experiences of precarious work with union representatives. Some workers revealed that they had never gone through a formal “on-boarding” process: They were hired by a manager for one day of work and told that, if it went well, they would be brought back; months later, they were still there, without anyone having counselled them on corporate processes, human-resources contacts, prospective benefits or other basic information about their employment. Some only learned how much they would be paid by asking co-workers. Others said they had never signed a contract.

Veteran employees do not always grasp how the landscape has changed since they began with the broadcaster. At one point in the meeting, John recalled, a union steward seemed to shrug off their concerns, explaining to the group that temp work had been a fact of life at CBC for decades. “She said that, when she started at CBC, her first 10 years were 13-week contracts back-to-back, and the next 10 years were one-year contracts back-to-back.” The assembled temp workers, many of them on two-week or one-month contracts, told the steward they would love the certainty of regular 13-week contracts. “She described [her situation] as a ‘nightmare,’ and we said: ‘That would be our dream!’” John told The Globe that the steward seemed taken aback at their experiences.

“We’re often told, you have to pay your dues. There’s this idea that all of the struggles we’re going through now are just part of the dues we’re paying, to end up being able to stay at the CBC,” John said. “But there is a difference between the dues we’re paying now and the dues that were paid in the past. It’s just so much more precarious now. We don’t know day to day whether we’re going to be working. A 13-week contract is a luxury!”

Some non-permanent employees do become staff: Of the 474 staff positions CBC/Radio-Canada filled in the 2018-19 fiscal year, 315 workers – or 66 per cent – had been casuals, temps or on contract, according to the company. Many, though, work years without ever landing a permanent gig.

John, who identifies as Indian-Canadian, said that she was struck at the meeting by how racially diverse and young – relative to the majority of CBC staff – her fellow temporary workers seemed to be.

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Diversity is one of CBC/Radio-Canada’s key corporate goals in its current five-year plan. The most recent figures available indicate 15.2 per cent of permanent employees self-identify as diverse: defined as Indigenous, a person with a disability or a member of a visible minority. (The data are imperfect, since they depend on employees choosing to self-identify.)

The diversity of the work force seems to be improving: CBC/Radio-Canada’s most recent quarterly report, for the third quarter of the 2018 fiscal year, notes that 30.1 per cent of new hires falls into one of those categories of diversity. But a footnote reveals the figure includes both permanent workers and long-term temps (for whom there is no guarantee of employment beyond 13 weeks). And the broadcaster doesn’t measure the diversity of its casual employees who work less than 13 weeks.

Chuck Thompson, the spokesman, said the corporation could not say what percentage of those included in the group of new hires are permanent versus contract employees, because “we don’t break it down that way.”

Asked to address the contention that CBC’s casual work force is disproportionally women and visible minorities, Thompson replied in an e-mailed statement: “In terms of diversity and reflecting Canada’s population in our work force, many of our temporary employees are diverse; ultimately, we want to groom them for future opportunities to ensure the makeup of CBC reflects the country.”

He added: “It’s important to bear in mind that 85 per cent of our work force is unionized and within any unionized environment, by and large, seniority trumps everything.”

Last December, Bria John decided she needed to look for other work. “I’m a 30-year-old single woman in Toronto, I need to be settling down, I need to be building roots I could grow with and I couldn’t see myself doing that at CBC.”

She took a few more weeks of work when they came up in February.

In March, she found out that a project she had worked on as a digital producer, the acclaimed podcast Finding Cleo, had won the Canadian Screen Award for best cross-platform project.

By then, she had already left CBC for the last time.

Editor’s note: (May 17, 2019) An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Samantha Garvey's first job at CBC. This version has been updated.
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