In April of last year, photographer Ruud Rogier shot 13 photos for Het Brabants Dagblad, a daily paper owned by De Persgroep, the Netherlands’ largest publishing company. He was paid EUR42 for each of those photos, averaging an hourly rate of between EUR15 and EUR18.
A couple months ago Rogier decided those rates just didn’t add up. He filed a lawsuit against De Persgroep demanding EUR1,698.84 in back pay, or EUR150 euros for each photo he shot.
“This simply isn’t tenable,” he said. “The way things are going now everyone will have to pull the plug.”
Rogier has gone to court with the argument that De Persgroep’s low rates for regional freelance photographers violate a provision of the Dutch law known as the Wet Auteurscontractenrecht (Law on Authors’ Contracts Legislation), which was introduced by the Dutch government in 2015 to strengthen the negotiating and legal position of authors and performers. Article 25 of this law states that creative makers have the right to negotiate “fair compensation” for their work.
The case would have been decided on May 17, but the Amsterdam court’s district judge deferred his judgement to gather more information about industry-wide rates and those paid by De Persgroep.
Separately from Rogier, Dutch print journalist Britt van Uem also sued De Persgroep over its low freelance rates for local journalists. She’s demanding back pay of EUR1,666.
If the judge sides with De Persgroep, the company has warned that other local journalists will also start fighting for better pay. The decision excludes journalists working for national outlets because they are subject to different and higher rates. The company has warned that it would cost it EUR84 million to raise its rates for all regional freelancers — a sum that would wipe out its annual profits, which totaled EUR100 million after tax last year.
For Otto Volgenant, both freelancers’ lawyer, whichever judgement follows will open a new front in the battle for better rates in the Netherlands.
If the judge rules in the freelancers’ favor, others in a position similar to Rogier and van Uem will brandish the ruling as an argument to demand higher rates themselves. If the judge rules in De Persgroep’s favor, that’ll encourage freelancers to go to local lawmakers and demand that they give the Dutch Association of Journalists the right to negotiate standard rates with media companies, he said. Currently, the Dutch union isn’t allowed to collectively bargain because this would supposedly create a dominant position on the side of freelancers that would violate rules designed to protect free competition across the EU member countries, he explained. However, in the Netherlands, De Persgroep and its two rival competitors — TMG and Mediahuis — have a 90 percent market share.
Volgenant said that freelancers across the continent could, in theory, take legal action by using these EU competition rules in their favor. “Of course you’d have to look at each specific market to establish whether there is a dominant position on the side of the publishers,” he said. If so, they may be able to successfully argue that freelancers should be given the right to collectively bargain because they’re the ones in a weak position.
Rogier has two pieces of advice for anyone considering taking legal action themselves: get your finances in order and don’t go it alone.
Pointing out that suing a media outlet inevitably means burning bridges with them, he advises finding new commissioning outlets and publications before going to court. “This has very real consequences and you need to have some sort of backup” for the assignments that will no longer come your way, he said.
Rogier advised that photojournalists pitch publications more often, rather than passively waiting for assignments, and to consider new forms of storytelling that combine image, video and text.
Next, collaboration is key. “This one’s really important,” he said. “My motto is that the best way to stand up for yourself is to do it together, so try to team up. It may seem like I’m doing this on my own but that of course isn’t the case.”
Rogier points out that the Dutch Journalists’ Union (NVJ), the Dutch Photographers (DuPho) association as well as the copyright collection society Pictoright have supported him from the beginning. “On your own, this is almost impossible and for sure very difficult to do,” he said.
Dutch freelance photographers recently went on a nationwide strike to demand better rates, but Rogier said that salaried journalists shouldn’t remain on the sidelines either. “It’d be nice if this had the support of everyone working in the journalism industry, so also those working as employees,” he said. “Solidarity and making a fist together is, of course, a strong item.”
The Amsterdam district judge is expected to rule on the case between August and November.