Yesterday I was told of some seriously dodgy dealings happening at Tantalus, an independent games development studio here in Melbourne. It’s alleged that a ‘significant number’ of their staff has been fired, and then re-hired as independent contractors.
What does this mean, exactly?
It means that people who were employees for Tantalus just a few days ago are now still working for the company full-time, but without benefits such as leave. They were given what’s known as a sham contract, and it happens when an employer wants to evade its responsibility to provide its employees their rightful benefits.
There’s currently very little documentation on the internet that references this incident at Tantalus. Most relevant is this article at Tsumea, which avoids naming specific companies and tries to avoid suggesting that the practice is downright illegal:
“I’m finding it hard to believe that they’ve had to take such drastic measures unless they were put in a predicament where such choices have become necessary to keep the company afloat. It’s just a not a clear cut as “bad company taking advantage of employees because they’re evil”. However, if these allegations are true, they are deeply troubling.”
Now, Tantalus is a prominent name in the local games industry, known mainly for licensed and ported titles. With over a decade and a half of experience, it’s built itself a nice reputation as one of Australia’s leading independent game development teams, probably not a reputation it wants to let go sour. As Souri of Tsumea says, Tantalus is likely greatly affected by the local game industry’s hardships – but are times really so tough the studio has felt the need to scrape by through illegal means? Can they be forgiven?
Regardless of how ‘necessary’ this change may be, there’s likely a reason it’s being kept hush-hush; it’s a surprisingly common (perhaps even advocated) tactic, with local companies known to engage in this practice having important members in organisations like the Game Developers’ Association of Australia. Tantalus CEO Tom Crago himself recently stepped down as the GDAA’s president. Is this how they can get away with it? How can you complain, after all, if your boss is linked to such organisations?
It’s not the only contributing factor, admittedly. As the Fair Work website linked by Tsumea says, any employers found engaging in such practices can be investigated and made to pay compensation. Sadly though, due to the aforementioned rifts in the industry, it’s likely that Tantalus’ employees accepted their sham contracts knowing full well what they entailed. The local games industry is just too cutthroat, jobs too scarce; for every person that rejects such a contract, there are ten more only too eager to take their place. People wouldn’t enter the games industry if they weren’t incredibly passionate about games, and this passion is used against them – if they want to remain in the industry, they’re likely to put up and shut up. It’d be nice to see more recognition of these unethical practices, maybe even someone to stand up to them, but it’s not likely – and we can’t blame them for not trying.