Our branch membership represents the new normal within the cultural sector: freelance self-employed workers, who work (often temporarily) in multiple workplaces and for different clients. One in four creative workers in the UK are self-employed. Coronavirus has exacerbated the precarious and unsustainable setup of the creative industries, exposing what for too long has been strategically ignored by employers, or reframed as positive flexible working.
The current government proposals – of providing statutory sick pay from day 1 rather than day 4 – do not go nearly far enough in affording cultural workers financial stability in these uncertain times. It shouldn’t need stating that in the UK today £94.25 a week is not enough to live on. Even more pressing for cultural workers is that self-employed workers do not qualify for SSP, presenting a two-fold risk: self-employed workers are more likely to continue going into work, putting their own health and others at risk, but also if we are to become ill or unable to work due to closures, receive little to no rights and protections.
We have already seen a number of events, performances and festivals cancelled, leaving creative workers – who are reliant on gig work – out of pocket and unable to rely on forecasted future income. The likelihood that the government will ban public gatherings in the near future will significantly impact creative workers’ ability to generate income, as galleries and museums will continue to close. This impacts all artworkers, from those selling tickets, invigilating the shows, running educational workshops, cleaning spaces, arts administrators, graphic designers working on exhibition identities and installs, to the artists and staff producing, curating and commissioning shows. In the likely event of more closures, we need to collectively pressure all institutions to commit to paid leave for all workers, including those agency or temp workers who are indirectly employed.
Cultural production is entangled within an international globalised economy. Global chains of production and distribution – residencies, funding, commissions, biennales – are already severely disrupted. Sectors like fashion in particular have seen huge disruption, uncertainty and financial losses.
We must understand that not all creative workers will have the ability to work from home, either due to shared living conditions with little space for work, or because of the specialist nature of their practice requiring particular facilities or working environments. In addressing the variety of spaces in which cultural production occurs, we ask that studio providers begin discussions immediately with both their landlords and studio occupants about their financial situations, with the recommendation of rent freezes across all studio spaces. In whatever eventuality, cultural workers must be allowed to return to their site of practice as soon as it is safe to do so.
In the short-term, however, we recommend that, wherever possible, designers and cultural workers shift to working remotely now – our members’ health and wellbeing is priority. We demand that all employers and clients facilitate this transition, providing suitable equipment, software, services, training and patience. Designers and cultural workers are also likely to work from shared spaces, putting their health at risk when hot desking from studio providers or working from public spaces like museums, libraries or cafes. Ultimately, freelancers should not feel they must put themselves more at risk just because they are self-employed.
In the longer term, our branch is in support of moves towards lobbying for a temporary universal basic income that includes all freelance self-employed staff. SSP is clearly not enough, and does not come close to covering rent in most UK cities, and occupational sick pay is only applicable to contracted workers. Therefore some form of UBI, combined with a rent freeze across both housing and studio space, is the only way to protect cultural workers in the coming months.
As a branch we will continue to collect the stories and experiences of our members to ensure employers are putting the health and wellbeing of their staff first. We will also be archiving useful resources through this Are.na channel.
Longer term still, and perhaps most importantly, we must use this crisis as an opportunity to reframe our industry. Our sector has committed to the prevailing logic of individualisation, to the detriment of its workforce. Creative production is casualised, in the interests of distributing profit unevenly to those at the top of the food chain. A moment of disruption creates a chance for our industry to be reassembled in the interests of its workers, with solidarity, community, equality and care at the centre of all future cultural production.
You can find Designer and Cultural Sector Workers’ statement with demands here.