The people who do most of the work and take much of the risk in the creative industries are panicking.
Politicians reading that sentence may be picturing theatre owners, concert promoters, studio bosses, broadcasters and production companies. This is understandable. They are the ones that respond to consultations and sit on various industry panels.
But unlike many other industries, many of the real, unmitigated risks in the creative sector are shouldered by freelance workers, and, in recent weeks, they have seen just how little the government understands a group of people who don’t have a Public Affairs department.
The most dynamic parts of the UK economy succeed thanks to this flexible workforce, and yet, they’re largely ineligible for any of the help that almost everyone else is getting.
Many believe that the Chancellor genuinely wants to help them, but can see his inability to know how to do it as further evidence of a widespread lack of understanding of freelance employment. Six months ago, the same freelancers were worrying about IR35 tax changes that treat many of them as practitioners of ‘false self-employment’. That may be true of the consultancy sector, but it isn’t the case for a Special Effects Technician.
When Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced his Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), denying many Self-Employed Sole Traders and Directors of their own Limited Companies access to the scheme if their earnings topped £50,000, he did so while presenting them as workers with average earnings of around the £200,000 mark.
Both times, the near-universal refrain from veteran film-crews who earn a fraction of that has been “they just don’t know anything about us, do they?” Many have no option but to trade through a Limited Company in an industry that manages its own risks by insisting on it. People who do so and draw down a lot less than £50,000 in income and dividends have been excluded from the scheme.
How many will want to remain in this sector once all of this is over? The outlook is bleak. This is particularly worrying because it’s a sector that had an acute and growing skills shortage, even before a large section of its workforce started evaluating their life-choices a month ago.
And when everyone goes back to their desks following the end of their ‘furlough’, will the cultural sector just snap back to work and re-employ all of those freelancers?
Probably not. March-July is a very busy part of the film/TV calendar, and there are real fears that productions may not be ready to go as soon as lockdown is over. There are widespread expectations that these workers will lose well over 50% of their annual earnings. Music-tech people will lose the festival season almost entirely.
And it gets worse. Many of these freelancers have to invest huge sums each year to maintain a suite of kits that they need to work with. A sound mixer on a TV drama has about £160,000 worth of equipment, which they expect to rent to employers for £2-3,000 per month as part of the package that includes their wages.
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This gives employers flexibility. All of that expensive kit will be sitting idle. Much of the real risk related to their industry is passed down to its workers. This will crush many freelancers in the culture industry.
If the UK wants its cultural sector to survive this crisis, and if it wants to retain world-beating skills, it will need a post-war Marshall Plan-style bail-out. It will also need a new deal for freelancers because the old one has failed.
Paul Evans is Assistant National Secretary in the London Production Division at the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU)