The world looks a lot different than it did this time last year. Autumn 2020 witnessed the viral spread of COVID-19 symptoms – in more ways than one. Not only was the world climbing towards the peak of an unprecedented global health crisis, but the worldwide economy was (and remains to be) in poor health, not least within the Creative Industries.
Today, the situation is somewhat brighter. We’re dancing to live music again, we’re visiting exhibitions and we’re taking up seats in theatres once more. We’ve been given a sweet taste of the pleasures we’ve missed so much and it’s finally time to start catching up on unfulfilled experiences. It’s time to oil the cogs of the creative minds that spluttered to a clunking halt at the hands of the pandemic and bring our Creative Industries back to life, stronger than ever.
As things continue on a positive trajectory, however, it’s vital not to overlook those who don’t yet feel quite so out-of-the-woods or over-the-worst. Amongst that category is many of the UK’s freelancers.
The COVID crisis has exposed and emphasised the fragility of the freelance model, with many freelancers witnessing their work (and income) dry up overnight. Although some benefited from the Self Income Support Scheme, many found themselves slipping through the gaps, helpless at the hands of stringent ineligibility criteria attached to most government support.
Our 2021 UKCI Report, supported by economic forecasting from Oxford Economics, revealed that a third of the UK Creative Industries is made up of freelancers. That’s double the number across all sectors and the economy as a whole (16%), which goes to show just how prolific freelance workers are within the creative sector and the Creative Industries workforce.
Freelancers comprise 70% of the music, performing arts & visual arts sector, 60% of design & designer fashion and 50% of film & video production. They are a sizeable and integral segment of the country’s workforce but are they being neglected along the road to post-pandemic recovery?
We spoke to some of our Future of Freelance Champions to gather their perspectives and insights, to find out more about the situation on the frontline of the UK freelance sector pre and post-pandemic.
Abby Kumar, freelance TV Producer, Freelance Advocate and Coalition for Change Organiser, from the furlough scheme that was put into place as a measure of emergency support. However, there were many other ‘forgotten freelancers’ – including many of her own peers – who weren’t quite so fortunate.
Abby told us: “I was quite lucky that I wasn’t a forgotten freelancer and managed to be put on furlough by my very kind boss. I seriously considered leaving the industry, even putting in applications for jobs in politics that, thankfully for Westminister, were rejected due to my media-heavy CV.
“Fortunately my expenditure was quite low during lockdown but being given the time away from work meant that I had a lot of time to think, which combined with the glaring issues with the freelancer model in my own industry, led to campaign work. Many of my former coworkers were out of work – some were forgotten freelancers – and many exited the industry.”
We asked Amanda Maxwell, Music Manager and Founder of intersectional creative network, Freelance Queens, what projects she had to put on hold during the pandemic and what the status of her work is now:
“There are so many things I had to stop whilst the pandemic happened, such as live events and branded activations. With a small community, it really was a case of us pausing in-real-life sessions for Freelance Queens and putting them on remotely. Now things have eased, our whole community is super keen to be working and making up for lost time.
“Brands are also being very restrictive on what they will or won’t provide so as a grassroots organisation, we’ve really been fending for ourselves. I’ve tried to develop a Freelance Queens fund to provide support to our queens in case of more restrictions. Any companies and brands who are keen to support female-identifying and majority ethnic minority communities, feel free to reach out – we need all the support we can get!”
We also spoke to Lara Ratnaraja, Cultural Consultant to find out how she’s feeling about her future as a creative freelancer and the future of the sector as a whole:
“What strange times to be a freelancer – the normal rules still don’t apply. On the one hand, we are agile, flexible and can adapt quickly to new ways of working and remote delivery. On the other hand, often, our clients are none of these things.
“The cultural sector is a behemoth that sometimes forgets the ecology it depends on. Freelancers were the forgotten economic casualties of the pandemic. Whilst emergency funds were quickly delivered to freelance artists by the funders, the rest of the sector (with notable exceptions) was slow to step up.
“There is an absolute inequity in the value of freelancers. I feel fairly confident about the future but I am older and more established – I also recommend or subcontract to other freelancers. There needs to be far greater value placed on freelancers, reflected in fair and consistent rates of pay, terms & conditions and working hours and conditions.
“As the sector adapts and recovers, new models are essential and the role of the freelancer will be even more vital. It needs to be seen as such and not as a source of cheaper labour. The skills we bring and the insights and horizon-scanning we do as freelancers will help new innovations in the sector.”
Paule Constable, Lighting Designer and founding member of Freelancers Make Theatre Work also shared her perspective with us:
“All freelancers need to be aware that many of the offers coming to us are terrible and the pressure to take that inadequate offer is immense after over a year of shut down. In the commercial world, there’s a struggle to find the staff to reopen all the shows in the West End. As producers pick up the phone and look for electricians, makers, wardrobe departments, carpenters, performers and stage managers, they are discovering how many freelancers have left the industry.
“There is not a huge amount of work, few of us are doing much and there is less resource to go around so only a handful of freelancers are benefitting from any of this money. Then we are seeing the end of Furlough and SEISS loom along with the end of the ACE funds thus adding more pressure to those of us freelancers for whom any support we could muster has been a lifeline. I feel as though I am on a slowly unfolding train wreck speeding towards a brick wall.”
So, what does – or should – the future look like for UK freelancers?
Andy Payne, Video Games Entrepreneur and Chair of British Esports Association, believes that in order for the sector to truly recover to its pre-pandemic levels of activity, freelancers need more clarity, training and access to vital financial support:
“In the videogames industry we’ve not seen the major disruption that other areas of the Creative Industries have suffered due to COVID, but we have seen some major structural changes and some ongoing challenges.
“Specifically, in videogames, we are a global digital business and our skills and expertise are in demand outside of the UK. As travel restrictions start to lift and given that the rules around travelling within the EU to work on a freelance basis are currently uncertain, we need more clarity around our rights to work in person and virtually.
“As freelancers, we also need access to continuous skills training so that we don’t fall behind those who get ongoing training as PAYE employees. Given how so many freelancers didn’t qualify for furlough payments during the pandemic, we need the government to review this situation and ensure that there are processes in place to ensure this will never happen again. Should we be prevented from working in the future, we can’t be excluded from vital financial support.”
Now that many support measures and restrictions are being relaxed, it’s paramount that we don’t forget the changes that need to be made or neglect the collective action we need to take to get there.
As we look to the future of the country and its Creative Industries, entrepreneurialism will be crucial. Ensuring a new compact between freelancers, government and industry, that supports the self-employed and enables them to flourish, will be essential to a recovering economy. Welsh government is already taking a forward-facing approach when it comes to their future workforce and the wellbeing of the nation through the establishment of its Future Generations Commissioner and the ongoing development of a Freelance Pledge.
In our 2021 UKCI Report, we outlined a number of policy recommendations that we believe would further help rehabilitate the UK’s fragile freelance ecosystem, including:
An ‘Innovation Employment Scheme’ – to increase UK businesses’ capacity to generate creative solutions and ideas, built on the model of the government’s Kickstart Scheme, incentivising employers to take on creatives, with a focus on freelancers and those out of work, to support particular projects, challenges and/or business opportunities.
A new compact between government and freelancers – the next generation of entrepreneurs will drive economic prosperity but are amongst those most impacted by the pandemic. Their entrepreneurialism could be incentivised through extending the government’s Kickstart Scheme to provide support for young people looking into the freelance profession, to start up their own business, or to progress onto further education and/or training.
But this is just the beginning. The drive for systemic change needs to continue forward and we need to carry on uniting to tackle the inequalities and precarity of the freelance ecosystem. The height of the pandemic might be over and we might be descending the peak but that doesn’t mean we can take our foot off the gas when it comes to protecting, nurturing and bolstering our integral freelance workforce.