Neighbours wraps up production after 37 years next week but the long-serving crew who make the iconic show say the production company Fremantle has refused to pay them redundancy.
The Australian soap, which launched the international careers of countless local stars including Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Margot Robbie and Guy Pearce, was axed earlier this year after the UK’s Channel 5 announced it would no longer buy the program. After failing to find a different British broadcaster to share the cost of making the show, it was announced that the show would come to an end – but crew, including one who has been there since the soap’s very first episode, say they have been treated badly.
“They’ve had Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan come over to shoot scenes recently, which is great,” Paul Stanley, an organiser with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance union, told Guardian Australia.
“That’s cool, but you’ve got people working here that took eight weeks off last year to ‘save the show’. You’re saying you can’t pay us redundancies and yet you are sinking money into the talent.”
Broadcast by Channel 10 and produced by Fremantle in Australia, Neighbours has been largely financed by Channel 5 since 2008, with the residents of Ramsay Street attracting more viewers in the UK than in their home country.
Union delegates from Neighbours said they met with Fremantle executives several times in the past few months to talk about the “devastating impact of the show’s cancellation on long-serving crew”, which number about 100 staff, including casting directors, costume designers, directors, location managers, makeup artists, researchers, screenwriters, set designers and producers.
Union sources say Fremantle maintains the workers are not employees but contractors so aren’t entitled to the usual employee standards, even though their contracts have been rolled over annually for years on end.
Although the Neighbours cast and crew worked through the pandemic, last year they were asked to stand down without pay for eight weeks to “save the show” when it became unclear where the funding was coming from.
Donovan and Minogue, who played Scott and Charlene in the 1980s, will return after more than 30 years for the show’s finale in August.
“Fremantle is trying to avoid payment to crew who have been loyal to the production, in some cases for decades, under the cover of rolling ‘fixed-term’ contracts,” the union told members in a bulletin after the show was axed.
“The company has responded by extending a deadline it had put to crew to accept lower payments to allow time for negotiation. Members will continue to work together over the coming weeks to ensure they are paid their entitlements.
“This week Fremantle reported a 25% increase in revenue in 2021 to $2.9bn, contributing strongly to a record profit for parent company RTL Group.”
Channel 5, which owned by US media giant Paramount, also expects record profits off the back of the lockdown boom in viewing. It has decided to reallocate its budget towards more original programmes following the success of shows such as the All Creatures Great and Small revival and said the redundancy terms were an issue for the production company: “Neighbours is produced by Fremantle Australia and we are unable to comment on their HR matters.”
One crew member who has worked on the Neighbours set on and off for three decades said he was really disappointed in Fremantle: “Some of us have been here for 30-odd years and they’re just saying that they’re not recognising the service,” he said.
“They always make out that at Neighbours we’re all part of the family, but then it’s come to the end of the show, which is sad obviously, and they just turn around and say ‘well, you’re not entitled to any benefits’. So it’s a bit frustrating and disappointing.”
The Fremantle Australia chief executive, Greg Woods, did not answer questions from Guardian Australia but said the company had complied with its legal obligations.
“To safeguard the wellbeing of our cast and crew of whom are our primary concern, and with just over one week left of production, we will not be providing a detailed comment at this time,” Woods said. “Additionally, as part of company policy, we also do not provide comment on HR-related matters.
“However, I can confirm that we’ve sought external counsel to ensure that we provide the necessary support and that we meet everyone’s legal entitlements and fully comply with our obligations.
“Our priority is and will continue to be to support the wellbeing of our cast and crew as the production draws next Friday.”
Stanley says the crew range from people who’ve worked seven to 10 years and longer, to one crew member who refers to himself as “Patient Zero Neighbours” because he’s been there since the beginning – “that’s basically your whole working life”.
“They were initially offered a four-week ‘special leave termination’ if they’d been there more than 12 months on top of long-service leave and their annual leave paid out,” Stanley said.
“We had a meeting with Fremantle and we got it up to eight weeks for some people, which helps. Employees of nine years are entitled to 16 weeks’ redundancy, but they’re offering them eight.”
While some staff have accepted the deal, others have held out, saying “it’s not fair, it’s not right”, Stanley said. “They want to see that film crews in the industry get treated better.”