The BAFTA award-winning UK indie games studio Ustwo recently fired a senior programmer and leading organizer of a fledging union that represents the games industry workers in the United Kingdom, in what the union claims is an effort to derail a growing movement. Ustwo claims the programmer was fired over performance issues.
Austin Kelmore, the fired organizer, was a key programmer on Ustwo’s highly anticipated Apple Arcade game, Assemble with Care. In recent weeks, Kelmore allegedly had been questioned by senior management about his union organizing and had invited Ustwo employees to discuss their rights at work, according to his union.
Ustwo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Today, the trade union Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, of which Kelmore’s Game Workers Unite of UK is a branch, announced it will launch a campaign and could take legal action against Ustwo, the studio behind Monument Valley. Aside from retaliating against Kelmore for union organizing, the union claims that the Ustwo violated his rights by not allowing Kelmore to bring a union representative to his disciplinary meeting.
Asked about the decision to protest Kelmore's firing, the treasurer of Game Workers Unite UK, Kevin Agwaze told Motherboard, "We're delighted by the massive outpouring of support for Austin."
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On its website, Ustwo touts itself as a “fampany” that blends family and corporate values by “caring deeply for our people, clients, and partners.”
According to the Guardian, Ustwo executives complained in internal emails that Kelmore was “spending too much time on diversity programmes” and “always putting leadership figures on the spot.”
Kelmore, the chair of Game Workers Unite's UK branch, was allegedly notified in late September that he had been put on gardening leave, according to his union. In the United Kingdom, “gardening leave” is when a terminated employee is instructed to remain on payroll while staying away from work in order to prevent them from sharing company secrets.
“Despite Ustwo's claims of being as much a family as it is a company, it has decided to leave Austin, one of its best developers, completely orphaned,” Jamie Cross, the UK press secretary of Game Workers Unite, said in a press release. “Austin and his family are not only left without their main source of income, but also unsure if they will have to uproot their whole lives and leave the country in a few weeks. The union will not stand idly by in the face of this unlawful and vicious act, and is determined to fight back until this decision is reversed, either voluntarily or through the courts.”
Game Workers Unite UK, which formed in December 2018, is organizing to tackle issues of rampant unpaid overtime, the use of contracts that do not guarantee minimum hours, a lack of diversity, and a culture of homophobia and sexism in the industry. According to the organization, which has branches across the world, 74 percent of game workers do not receive overtime pay, but 90 percent work overtime.
WGB says that it will file legal action against the company if it does not reinstate Kelmore by Friday.