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Ireland's digital game workers say new industry tax break should be tied to 'quality' pay and conditions

The Government is due to introduce the new tax credit in Budget 2022.

Image: Shutterstock

THE UNION REPRESENTING digital game workers in Ireland wants companies to commit to providing ‘quality employment’ conditions before they can avail of a proposed Government tax break.

A new tax incentive aimed at attracting investment to Ireland’s growing game industry was announced in the Budget last year.

It’s expected to be implemented in Budget 2022 next October and The Journal understands that talks between the game sector and the Government are at an advanced stage. 

Public details of the scheme are thin on the ground but it’s expected to be similar in nature to the Section 481 tax credit for the film industry.

But in recent years, Game Workers Unite (GWU), a branch of the Financial Services Union (FSU) that represents workers in the sector, has raised concerns about employment conditions within the industry. 

To tackle these issues, the FSU wants the Government to require employers to sign a written statement committing them to provide “quality employment” before they can avail of the tax credit.

This is already a stipulation of the film sector tax credit, introduced in Section 481 of the 1997 Finance Act.

Rules attached to the Section 481 tax break require employers to explain in writing how the project will act as “an effective stimulus to film making in the State through, among other things, the provision of quality employment”.

Film companies are also required to put their name to an “undertaking of quality employment”, committing them to fulfil their statutory obligations as employers.

Now, the FSU has written to finance minister Paschal Donohoe and enterprise minister Leo Varadkar with a view to discussing a definition of quality employment for the soon-to-be-introduced game industry tax break.

Gareth Murphy, Head of Industrial Relations and Campaigns at the FSU, told The Journal, “Any financial and taxation support for the sector must be linked to decent quality employment where workers right to collectively organise and negotiate working conditions is respected.

“We have written to relevant Government Ministers asking them to meet with the FSU and workers in the sector to hear first-hand the experience and concerns of people employed in the sector.”

Growth opportunities

Ireland’s small digital games sector has grown substantially in size over the past 20 years.

In 2004, it employed roughly 400 people across 22 companies. By 2016, the last year for which detailed statistics are available, the sector employed around 1,890 people between 40-50 game development companies.

“This is a sector that has seen exponential global growth in the past decade, and there are potential synergies with our established film and animation sectors to support quality employment in creative and digital arts in Ireland,” Paschal Donohoe said in his Budget speech last October.

Despite being relatively new, the sector can also boast some homegrown success stories. Chief among them is Leopardstown-based Keywords Studios, which listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2013.

But in tandem with the industry’s success in recent years, workers have persistently raised concerns about the quality of employment within the sector and the lack of representation for women.

Of 223 GWU members who responded to a survey by GWU in 2019 and 2020, just 23% identified as women.

The union said was in line with international trends in the games industry where women and those identifying as non-binary are underrepresented.

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Some 64% of respondents said they had experienced low pay while 17% said their employers had missed payments entirely.

Nearly 56% of respondents said they were expected to work extra hours known in the industry as “crunch time” near a project deadline, which is often unpaid.

The issue of low pay was most acute among workers in quality assurance roles, some 85% of whom earned less than €2,000 gross per month.

Meanwhile, some 56% of digital designers earned less than €2,000 per month while over 60% of them said they were expected to work crunch hours.

Overall in 2019, some 82.5% of respondents working in the games sector earn below the State’s average wage.

FSU organiser Murphy said that game workers have unionised to highlight a “range of issues” and to develop a “collective voice” within the industry.

“There is sometimes a perception that game workers are highly paid with great conditions, and certainly some roles are well remunerated,” he said.

“But our survey of games workers demonstrates another side of the industry that is of low paid, insecure contracts, unpaid overtime, long working hours, burnout and stress, harassment, and very little pension provision.”

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