Television talent shows such as The X Factor are ‘exploiting and humiliating’ their contestants by making them work for no pay, the performers’ union Equity has said.

Production companies which make the shows generate huge profits from the ‘cheap exploitation’ of vulnerable people desperate to break into the entertainment industry, the union said.

Equity said a loophole in minimum wage legislation means contestants on reality talent shows are not classed as workers, and have no employment rights.

The X Factor returns to ITV1 on Saturday, and Equity wants all contestants who reach the final round to be paid and to have legal status as workers with proper employment rights.

The union is to table a motion at next month” TUC conference calling on TV companies to pay talent show contestants.

The motion will read: “These programmes may be very popular with the public but are based on exploitation and humiliation of vulnerable people, which cannot be acceptable.”

The union called on independent production companies such as Talkback Thames, the makers of The X Factor, to follow the example of the BBC, which paid contestants in the final rounds of talent shows How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything at Equity rates.

But Talkback, which also makes Britain’s Got Talent, said the shows gave ordinary people the chance to showcase their talents and potentially transform their lives.

“Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor are talent competitions,” the statement read.

“They are not employment in their own right and therefore Equity rates do not apply. Contestants chose to enter to compete for a substantial prize.”