Britain’s Creative Freelancers Need More Government Protection, Report Argues

  • Photo of National Theatre by Kerry Harrison. Courtesy of Creative Industries Federation.

The government should do more to protect freelance workers in Britain’s creative sector by providing accessible workspaces, legal resources, and a simplified visa process, among other policies, according to a report released Monday by the Creative Industries Federation (CIF).

The report surveyed 50 cultural organizations and 700 “creative freelancers,” a diverse group that includes writers, artists, set designers, and video game creators. Such workers can take on dozens of contracts per year, but freelancing is distinct from the gig economy, which sees participants taking on a higher number of shorter contracts. The CIF believes it to be the first report to look into the working conditions faced specifically by creative freelancers, though the document also highlighted issues faced by freelancers across all sectors, such as a lack of sick pay, inadequate maternity pay, and Brexit-driven uncertainty.

While freelancers are important across most industries, they comprise 47 percent of the creative field, compared to 15 percent of the U.K.’s workforce overall, according to government data. The report found that the majority of those surveyed were happy being self-employed, but concluded that policies affecting them were being “developed sometimes in potentially damaging ways or in apparent ignorance of their needs.”

“Almost half of the creative workers in our sector are freelancers and yet for the most part they seem completely invisible to policy makers,” said Eliza Easton, deputy head of research and policy at the CIF, a membership organization founded in 2014 to advocate for the creative sector.

The temporary and diverse nature of creative freelance workers makes it hard for them to lobby as an interest group. The self-employed can also be overlooked by government studies, which may rely on tax data reported by firms for full-time employees. For example, a government report issued last month looking at salaries in Britain by major omitted the self-employed.

The reliance on freelancers in the creative sector is particularly heavy given the small size of creative businesses, which in 2014 employed an average of just 3.3 full-time workers, according to a 2016 Nesta report. But the CIF survey showed that even at larger institutions, freelancers can outnumber employees. London’s National Theatre, one of the 50 organizations contacted for the CIF report, found that in addition to 611 permanent staff, the London-based institution employs 2,900 contractual, freelance, or commissioned workers, from actors to glass fitters.

Ensuring policymakers and industry pay attention to creative freelancers is increasingly important ahead of Brexit negotiations, according to the report, which cited questions about tariffs, intellectual property protection, and freedom of movement. The absence of a specific visa for freelancers—which the report calls on the government to change—is of particular concern for those who worry a post-Brexit Britain might suffer from economic isolation and a talent shortage.

“Those of us that have tried to secure work or tried to make a living outside the EU, particularly in the U.S., understand all too well how difficult it is to secure a visa, navigate export tax—all this kind of stuff,” said James Doeser, a U.K.-based freelance cultural policy researcher. Though not a participant in the survey, he echoed many of the sentiments expressed by freelancers about Brexit, noting concerns that the “friction, barriers, headache and expense that come with working transatlantically will also be in place when we leave the European Union.”

The survey found wide salary variations among those designated as “creative freelancers,” from a low of less than £18,000 a year, to high earners with incomes in excess of £100,000. Different fields also showed drastic variation in pay. Those freelancing in advertising reported salaries in the range of  £30,000 to £50,000, while craft and design or as authors earned less than £18,000.

“For them, not being paid for a single job could be a problem,” said Easton, noting that the survey found some some 65 percent of freelancers took unpaid work in the last year.

Generally, freelancers contacted for the survey reported being happy with a career path outside of an institution. But according to Easton, about 10 percent of those surveyed—or roughly 70 individuals—became freelancers after being laid off from their full-time job, and about half of those reported struggling to find work.

Creative freelancers broadly shared concerns about legal issues, creative workspaces, and access to funding and finance advice. The report also broke down the concerns of creative freelancers by subsector. Visual artists reported needing access to advice for navigating intellectual property or other legal disputes, and also stressed the importance of accessible creative workspaces. In the museums, galleries, and libraries sector, freelancers reported concerns about pension pay, and being excluded from institutional decisions.

“Each of us who call ourselves freelancers arrive at a different set of priorities and a different set of demands,” noted Doeser, citing this as a difficulty in crafting overarching policies for a group that is inherently atomized and flexible. For example, freelancers in film, TV, video, radio, VFX, and photography reported the need for additional professional technical training, a priority not necessarily shared by, say, authors.

Still, the report makes several recommendations that would help the entire sector as a whole. Freelancers have been stung by newly-launched Making Tax Digital (MTD) program, which requires quarterly tax returns—increasing the cost and time burden on those whose finances can be scattered and coming from numerous different contracts. The report asks the government to “assess the additional burden” and provide support, if necessary.

The report concludes with a set of roughly a dozen recommendations. Among them, it proposes preventing the conversion of creative workspaces into residential units without local government scrutiny. It also advocates building freelance work into a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) ministerial brief, ensuring that a governmental body is tasked with specifically looking at the policy needs of the self-employed. Further, it advocates reforming the visa system to allow creative freelancers the ability to live and work in the country.

The report generated responses from both Conservative creative industries minister Matt Hancock and Labour shadow culture minister Kevin Brennan. Hancock described it as “an important contribution to our understanding of the creative industries labour market,” and said it would inform ongoing work on an industrial strategy.

“This report considers the issues that creative freelancers themselves say need addressing,” said Brennan, “and the government should look closely at its recommendations.”


—Isaac Kaplan

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