Op-ed: Ad agency lockout disproportionately hurts diverse gig workers

The benefits of unions for gig workers are clear: living wages, pensions, benefits and safe working conditions. These protections are especially important for groups who have been historically excluded and marginalized, such as members of the BIPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, and women.

For decades, Canada’s performers enjoyed benefits under an agreement that worked to protect some of the most vulnerable gig workers. Now some of Canada’s largest ad agencies, like Cossette Toronto and Leo Burnett, are trying to take away these minimum protections from performers who make commercials. As a BIPOC performer, former Co-Chair of ACTRA Toronto’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and acting coach, my biggest passion is protecting and advocating for workers in my industry. The ad agency lockout makes me deeply concerned for my community.

For more than 60 years, the National Commercial Agreement (NCA) ensured minimum pay, benefits and working conditions for over 28,000 professional performers within The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), whose faces grace the ads we see on TV and hear on the radio every single day. But that changed in April when several agencies belonging to the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA) tried to break the union, drive wages down by 60 per cent, and eliminate pensions and benefits.

Only a couple of years ago, social justice movements like BLM and #MeToo seemed to inspire the entire world (including the corporate one) to make commitments to correct inequities and seek out solutions to address systemic and institutionalized racism. But that bright hope has dimmed and actions like the lockout are a step backward.

Governments claim to be paying closer attention to the unique challenges of gig workers – but are they including commercial performers in their efforts? Some of Canada’s biggest brands and advertisers have made public statements regarding their commitment to diversity and inclusion (such as through the People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing Call for Equity) but they have not fulfilled their promises to “introducing wage equity plans to ensure that women and Black, Indigenous and PoC are being compensated fairly.” These brands and agencies are making record breaking profits, while trying to take away minimum rates, protections and benefits from precarious gig workers.

In 2017, ACTRA Ontario conducted a survey of its members and found that a 29 per cent wage gap for commercial performers who identify as ethnically diverse and a 28 per cent gap for women. These pervasive problems exist in a unionized environment with minimum rates and protections in place. We know how much dire the gap will be in a non-unionized workplace. 

We don’t need to look far for answers. ACTRA members have been locked out of work for nearly six months as 16 of the largest advertising agencies opted out of paying fair wages and benefits in favour of taking advantage of non-union performers who have no one to negotiate on their behalf.  The ICA’s lockout not only further marginalizes underrepresented communities, it represents their effort to suppress their voices and erode their rights. The message from agencies is clear: we don’t care about you, but we will use you to enhance our DEI profile.

These days, advertisements are replete with important diversity, inclusion and representation. The importance of creating commercials where audiences see the normalization of interracial couples, 2SLGBTQIA+ representation, more people of colour and more women working cannot be understated. These commercials play an important role in social discourse and progressive values.

Yet several agencies are making ads that promote inclusion while attacking the very workers who make their commercials. If agencies are serious about diversity, equity and inclusion, they need to put their money where their mouth is and stop negatively impacting diverse gig workers by taking away livable wages, minimum protections and benefits. Instead, they should be empowering and amplifying the voices of diverse performers by treating them with the respect they deserve.

If governments and brands who use these agencies also support diversity, equity and inclusion, they need to take a stance on this dispute and push agencies like Cossette Toronto and Leo Burnett back to the bargaining table – and if not, they should find new agencies who respect fair wages and the talent of Canada’s performers. Otherwise, they will be making a very public statement on where their priorities lie and their actions, or lack thereof, will be noticed.

The need for unionized work in the commercial industry has reached a critical mass and can no longer be ignored by the public, legislators or the agencies who are producing commercials for multi-national brands we interact with daily. It’s time for Canada’s advertising agencies to return to the bargaining table and live up to the diversity, equity and inclusion blurbs listed on their websites.

Samora Smallwood is a classically trained, bilingual actress, writer and creator. She is the founder of The Actors Work Studio, an innovative acting studio in Toronto. An advocate for actors, Samora’s work as co-Chair of ACTRA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee is focused on equity, representation, and inclusion. She recently received a 2022 Canadian Screen Award for best leading actress in the thriller “Death She Wrote”.


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