Union files complaint against Vancouver Sausage Party animation studio
3rd-party employment standards complaint on behalf of animators alleges unpaid overtime, termination threats
A media workers' union has filed an employment standards complaint against the Vancouver animation studio behind Seth Rogen's latest film, Sausage Party.
The complaint was filed by Unifor Local 2000 on behalf of the non-unionized animators who worked on the film.
It alleges that Nitrogen Studios — which produced the animation for the film — did not pay them for overtime hours spent working on the film.
Jennifer Moreau, vice-president of Unifor Local 2000, said such working conditions are extremely common in the booming Vancouver animation, visual effects (VFX) and video game industries.
"Vancouver has almost become like a sweatshop for these animation companies," Moreau said. "They're shipping all the work up here, because we get the tax credits, but the workers are paying the price."
Nitrogen Studios was not able to make anyone available for comment, but president and owner Nicole Stinn denied the allegations in an emailed statement.
"Nitrogen Studios followed all employment regulations, so the claims being made against us are unfounded," she wrote. "Nitrogen also fulfilled all of its contractual obligations with its employees."
Complaints first appeared online
Complaints about Nitrogen Studios first appeared online in the comments section of an article on Cartoon Brew featuring an interview with the film's directors, Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan.
In the interview, Vernon and Tiernan spoke about producing the film on a much lower budget than most Hollywood animated films.
The comments section was soon flooded with anonymous commenters claiming to have worked on the film, alleging they had been pressured into working overtime.
CBC News has not been able to verify any of these claims independently.
However, Moreau said working conditions like this are common in the Vancouver animation, VFX and video game industry, and she claims to have corroborated many of the commenters' allegations with an animator who worked on the film.
"This is not the first time we have heard these kinds of complaints," Moreau said.
Animators afraid to speak out, union claims
Despite the alleged prevalence of such working conditions, Moreau said animators are afraid to speak out against employers for fear of being denied future jobs in an industry that is largely contract-based.
"It's a small, tight-knit community, so if they badmouth one employer, there's a good chance they won't get hired on the next contract with that company," Moreau said.
"Employers know this and will threaten animators with this."
There is currently no union representing animators, VFX artists or video game developers in Vancouver — a city that has become an internationally recognized industry hub in recent years.
Moreau said Unifor has been campaigning to unionize workers in the industry for a number of years, but workers still seem to fear the consequences.
"We're kind of hoping that this Nitrogen thing is a tipping point and that people are going to stop accepting what their employer is dishing out," Moreau said.
Are animators 'high-tech' workers?
Under B.C.'s Employment Standards Act, workers designated to be "high technology professionals" are exempt from overtime pay.
The act defines a high technology professional as someone who primarily uses specialized knowledge and skills to develop information systems, technological processes and products or to engage in research.
Moreau said Nitrogen may be claiming that its animators are high-tech professionals to avoid paying them overtime — a tactic she says is common, despite the definition not applying to creative professionals like animators.
"These people are not making technological widgets [or] information systems," she said. "They're creating cartoons. They deserve the same rights that every other worker in British Columbia enjoys under the Employment Standards Act."
B.C. Employment Standards could not confirm whether an animator or VFX worker would fall under the definition of a high-tech professional. Rather, the applicability of such a definition would be determined on a case-by-case basis during the course of an employment standards investigation.
Nitrogen did not respond to requests to answer the specific question of whether it considers its animators to be high-tech professionals.