The publisher behind Call of Duty: Vanguard and World of Warcraft announced yesterday that it would be improving pay and paid-time-off for contractors at the company, including raising the minimum hourly rate to $US17 (A$23) and paying them even during holiday breaks. The changes came amid renewed scrutiny of workplace conditions at Activision Blizzard following its latest earnings report showing $US2.78 (A$3.77) billion in revenue for the last quarter.
“We have learned from contractors across ABK that they are being forced to take mandatory unpaid leave during the holidays, putting them in immediate financial and housing crisis,” the ABetterABK Alliance, a group of Activision Blizzard workers, announced on Twitter last week. “Displacing workers who help create the products that generate ABK’s revenue is inhumane.”
In order to shed some light on the lives of contractors across ABK, and the more insidious nature of this employment, we'd like to invite some of our current peers and alumni to speak about their experiences in replies here.
— ABetterABK ???? ABK Workers Alliance (@ABetterABK) November 4, 2021
It was the latest public criticism of the company from the group which formed earlier this year following a California lawsuit alleging widespread sexual harassment and discrimination at Activision Blizzard. What started with an open letter signed by thousands of current and former employees demanding improved working conditions eventually led to CEO Bobby Kotick announcing a number of concrete measures to address those concerns, including waiving the company’s mandatory arbitration clause and investing in more diverse hiring.
But continued pressure by the ABetterABK Alliance appears to be winning even more concessions. In addition to the new minimum hourly rate, yesterday’s policy changes included 13 paid holidays a year for contract employees, new sick leave days beginning in 2022, and “new learning and development programs for employees and temporary workers.”
“As a part of Activision Blizzard’s efforts to make its workplace supportive and more inclusive, company leadership has been working for some time to enhance and improve benefits provided to temporary contract and third-party agency workers,” a spokesperson for the company told Kotaku in an email.
Contract employees are notoriously treated like second-class developers at even the biggest and most profitable game companies. In addition to outsourcing production to cheaper labour markets, giving armies of QA testers and other contractors less pay and worse, if any, benefits, are one of the ways studios try to cut costs. These contractors are especially susceptible to crunch — long periods of overtime work — when companies are racing to hit release dates. See the makers of The Last Of Us Part II, Red Dead Redemption II, and Cyberpunk 2077 just to name a few.
“For everyone questioning the $US17 (A$23) and wondering why that’s a win I currently make less than that as a senior QA at $US16.50 (A$22) and started at I think $US13.50 (A$18.30) as a standard tester,” wrote one current employee on Twitter.
Still, some Activision Blizzard employees say more needs to be done. The minimum wage in Santa Monica, California, where the company’s headquarters is located, was increased last summer to $US15 (A$20). “We are fighting for the bare minimum!” wrote a current developer at Blizzard. The publisher’s Call of Duty series is especially notorious for exploiting contract workers.
The ABetterABK Alliance and some of its members have recently started tweeting cryptically about unionization. “The Activision Blizzard earnings call is tomorrow,” the group wrote on November 1. “Do you think @BobbyKotick will answer our call to voluntarily recognise a union before then? Only time will tell.”
Kotick didn’t recognise a union, and so far the ABetterABK workers haven’t confirmed taking steps to form one. But in practice the group has already shown that it can act collectively to pressure management into improving conditions, at least while public scrutiny over the California lawsuit continues and a tight labour market means game companies are struggling to retain and hire new developers.