"Slumdog Millionaire" Payment Controversy Provokes Union Debate

News that the children actors in "Slumdog Millionaire" were underpaid has provoked debate on global unions.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the children's parents have accused the film's producers of exploitation because they say the 8-year-old actors were underpaid -- and still live in slums.

The film's British director, Danny Boyle, has spoken of how he set up trust funds for Rubina and Azharuddin and paid for their education. But it has emerged that the children, who played Latika and Salim in the early scenes of the film, were paid less than many Indian domestic servants.

Rubina was paid 500 [pounds] for a year's work while Azharuddin received 1,700 [pounds], according to the children's parents.

Dylan Matthews asks how this can be prevented in the future. He suggests unionization.

Perhaps it's too much to ask for studios to use the same day rates when filming overseas as they do when filming domestically, but they should at the very least be obligated to let foreign actors collectively bargain. India's a special case, in that Bollywood actors already have a union from which foreign production teams can hire. Other countries with smaller film industries might not have enough actors to form a strong bargaining unit. What is to prevent an actor in, say, Laos from being exploited?

Meanwhile, movie executives at Fox Searchlight have defended the salaries -- and make no mention of a new global union plan.

A statement from Fox Searchlight reads, "The welfare of Azhar and Rubnia has always been a top priority for everyone involved with Slumdog Millionaire. A plan has been in place for over 12 months to ensure that their experience working on Slumdog Millionaire would be of long term benefit. For 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary. Last year after completing filming, they were enrolled in school for the first time and a fund was established for their future welfare, which they will receive if they are still in school when they turn 18.

"Due to the exposure and potential jeopardy created by the unwarranted press attention, we are looking into additional measures to protect Azhar and Rubina and their families. We are extremely proud of this film, and proud of the way our child actors have been treated."