Empowering the Freelance Economy

Freelancer voices have gone unheard for 70 years says freelance cultural worker. Is this the beginning of the end for Britain’s art and cultural sector?

Photo by Cherry Laithang via Pexels
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On the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death, we reflect on the importance of art and culture in society and the central role freelancers have always played in the economy. But for many freelancers working in the Arts, their voices have yet to be heard when it comes to policy

Self-employment in the UK creative and cultural industries is more than double the national average. In the year to September 2022, there were 3.1 million filled job roles in the UK creative and cultural industries, of which 989,000 were self-employed (32%). This is more than double the rate of self-employment in the wider UK economy (14%).

This is a wide-reaching segment of the British economy which includes film, television, radio, computer gaming, publishing, and the performing arts. These sectors are significant contributors to the UK economy, generating over £116 billion in gross value added (GVA) in 2019.

As recently reported by The Freelance Informer, companies that hire creative talent, namely broadcasters and TV production companies are under the spotlight by the Competition and Markets Authority for suspected rate fixing when it comes to freelance hires. This spurs the question, why are freelancers in the Arts treated the way they are? Is it because the productions they work on are so precarious that freelancers then carry the same level of uncertainty by association?

The high rate of self-employment in the creative and cultural industries reflects the nature of the work, which is often project-based and freelance. It also reflects the fact that many people in these industries choose to be self-employed in order to have more control over their work and to be able to pursue their creative passions.

BBC’s docuseries on Pablo Picasso: Beauty and the Beast illustrates the precarious lifestyle, loves, works and financial standing of the artist. Photo source: BBC

The survey that missed an opportunity

In October 2023, Arts Council England (ACE) announced a new survey of freelance workers in the cultural sector. The survey, which is being conducted by researchers at the University of Essex, aims to understand the experiences and working conditions of freelancers and to inform ACE’s future policies and support.

However, the announcement of the survey was met with mixed reactions from freelancers, many of whom felt that it was unnecessary and disrespectful. As freelance cultural worker Chrissie Tiller points out in her recent article for Arts Professional, the sector has already been the subject of numerous surveys and research studies in recent years. Yet, despite this wealth of data, little has been done to address the precarity and vulnerability of freelance workers.

The survey according to reports marked what many freelancers felt was a missed opportunity to listen to the concerns of the sector’s workforce. Many freelancers found the survey of no use and illustrated that the organisation remained out of touch with their needs and concerns.

Tiller argues that ACE’s decision to conduct another survey is symptomatic of a wider problem: the sector’s continued failure to value and support its freelance workforce. She cites ACE CEO Darren Henley reporting that freelancers make up 49% of the total workforce in the cultural sector and an even greater percentage of those making the creative work on which the sector depends. However, there is a consensus that they are treated as second-class citizens, with little access to job security, paid sick leave, or other basic benefits. Something many in the arts would strive for even though most roles are freelance.

Tiller also criticises the fact that ACE is asking freelancers to complete the survey for free. She argues that this is ironic, given that one of the key goals of the survey is to understand the experiences of unpaid labour. She also points out that many freelancers are struggling to make ends meet, and simply cannot afford to spend time completing unpaid surveys.

Overall, Tiller’s article is a powerful critique of ACE’s freelance survey, and of the sector’s wider treatment of freelance workers. She argues that ACE needs to take a more serious approach to supporting its freelance workforce and that this means putting workers first, rather than focusing on large institutions and high-profile buildings.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Leave your comments

Who’s Hiring?

Feel you could make a difference at ACE? They are hiring two communications officers within digital and marketing. One is a permanent position and the other is a contract for maternity leave until 24 November.

BBC: Picasso: The Beauty and The Beast

To watch BBC’s docuseries of Picasso, click here.

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