Employment rights for reality TV contestants

The Apprentice must be the most famous 12-week interview process for any job in the country. Each week, one candidate is rejected, but in saying the famous phrase: “You’re fired”, does Sir Alan Sugar or the show’s producers actually leave themselves open to employment tribunal claims?

To date, no employment law claims have been brought by reality TV contestants in the UK. But in France, following the reality television show l’Ile de la Tentation (Temptation Island), some participants commenced proceedings alleging that their employment rights had been infringed by working overtime. The producers denied that they were employees, but the Paris Appeal Court ruled that the participants should be treated as production company staff with full employment rights. This led to three of the contestants being awarded sums of around £20,000 each in connection with their appearance on the show.

They had already signed a contract under which they received €1,525 (£1,207) for an advance payment on merchandising rights. The court considered that this should be treated as a salary. With France applying a 35-hour working week, it also ruled that they were entitled to an award in respect of overtime, as they had effectively worked 24 hours a day during the entire 12-day filming period. Additional payments were due for not being given a holiday, unfair dismissal when their appearance ended, for the wrongful termination of their contracts, and for being illegally employed.

A similar case was brought in the US, but in this instance, the proceedings were brought by an applicant who never even made it onto the reality TV show. The programme in question was the American version of The Apprentice. The claimant, Richard Hewitt, brought proceedings against property tycoon Donald Trump over alleged age discrimination when his application for the show was rejected. He claimed Trump and the show’s producers had violated the USA Age Discrimination in Employment Act on the grounds that his application had been rejected because, at 49, he was considered too old. It has since been reported that the legal proceedings have been the subject of a settlement, the terms of which remain confidential.

So, what are the potential claims that reality TV candidates or rejected candidates could bring in the UK? Assuming for a moment that there was an employment relationship, then they would clearly have insufficient service to bring a claim for unfair dismissal. However, there are many employment rights that require no qualifying period of service, meaning that in theory, discrimination complaints could be brought by applicants, ’employees’, or even former ’employees’.

Employers are most at risk of discrimination complaints during the recruitment process. Failed applicants have much less to dissuade them from commencing litigation as they have no employment relationship to continue, no loyalty to the business or to individuals, and no reference to worry about. They also tend to feel embittered towards the employers in question.

Additionally, there are numerous employment rights that can be relied on from day one of an employment relationship. Take for example the Working Time Regulations 1998, which set out the maximum average weekly working hours, minimum rest breaks, daily and weekly periods and entitlements to paid leave.

Of course, The Apprentice is not a real job situation. It is merely a television show created to entertain the viewing public. Hence, unlike in France or the US, employment-related claims are completely inappropriate. All the candidates in the UK version know that they are taking part in a show, and their participation is more to do with craving the fame of being on television than wanting a real job. As an entertaining television show it has been highly successful, but if any claims are brought before an employment tribunal in the UK, they are likely to be given very short shrift.

Key points

• In the UK, discrimination claims may be brought at the recruitment stage
• Most employment rights apply from the first day that employment begins
• Employment protection is in place to protect workers, employees or other individuals at work or applying for work
• However, employment legislation is not aimed at protecting participants in game shows or taking part in other entertainment.

By Guy Guinan, an employment law partner, Halliwells

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