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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Creative and Cultural Skills

If organisations don’t get a grip on the difference between being a freelancer and an employee – and give both the rights and benefits they are entitled to – then the workforce they depend upon may not be returning to them after the current crisis has passed, says Sara Whybrew.

a female writing at a desk behind a glass door

© Briony Campbell

In normal circumstances, many in the cultural sector would be heading into one of their busiest times of year. Instead they are facing really challenging times ahead as large events and festivals are cancelled and the time when they can reopen their doors is uncertain.

This impact has been felt most keenly by the huge number of freelancers in our sector who were left without work overnight and found themselves low down on the chain of priorities for Government support. The current crisis may have inadvertently highlighted the precarious nature of their work.

Many of these freelancers, who are the lifeblood of the creative sector, have found themselves suddenly without income, without promise of future work and, in many cases, having to manage childcare or other dependents. As it stands, they will also have to wait until June to receive the kind of support that payroll employees are currently getting.

While this is a poor reflection on the Government, it’s also a moment to reflect on how the sector treats its freelancers, and how it would cope without them.

Employees by another name

In the cultural sector 38% of our workforce is self-employed. This is a well-reported statistic, but would it read very differently if we looked closely at the conditions freelancers are asked to work under? There is a view that many choose to work on a freelance basis because they welcome the freedom it brings, the flexibility to work the days and hours they choose, to select the projects that appeal the most, and to be their own boss. Freelancers should have the freedom to delegate the work they (their company) has been contracted to undertake to others should they wish to.

But this isn’t the reality for many of our freelancers, who find themselves having their hours and days dictated by the business that contracts them. Does that contract (verbal or written) actually obligate the individual freelancer to directly undertake the work being offered, rather than their company?  If that’s the case, it risks describing a scenario that isn’t freelancing, but implies working conditions that make the ‘freelancer’, in effect, a fixed-term employee.

Being an employee, though, would entitle the individual to rights that freelancers don’t have, including minimum wage, holiday and sick pay. It would also enable them to access support in this current crisis that freelancers haven’t been able to. Businesses need to recognise that it isn’t what you call someone in your workforce that determines what they are, it’s the reality of the situation you’re asking them to operate within that does this.

Working together

Anyone employing and/or contracting people has a responsibility to make sure they are treating everyone they hire fairly and appropriately. But when it comes to working with our crucial talent pool of freelancers, not everyone is on the same page. It would be easy for me to say that any oversights are simply a result of businesses not being aware of their obligations, but I’m not sure this is good enough.

For over a decade, Creative & Cultural Skills has championed different entry routes into our sector and the importance of fair access to work. We believe that having a sound understanding of the social, moral and legal case for getting recruitment right reduces risks to businesses, enables employers to create appropriate types of work opportunities and helps them to develop inclusive practices.

Our emphasis has been on how and why the sector should embrace apprenticeships, why interns should always be paid, and what truly makes someone a volunteer, all with a view to celebrating the role each of these routes can play in helping new and diverse talent develop occupational skills and progress into and through our workforce. Freelance work is a natural continuation of these entry routes into the sector, as well as a valid entry point in itself, and we want to do more to support how business and freelancers work together.

Our mission includes helping employers understand employment best practice, so we have just published a simple guide for businesses to refer to. We hope this will help support a clearer understanding of how and when we should use freelancers, providing food for thought when we’re out the other side of the current crisis.

Failing to respond to the situation facing freelancers is short-sighted. They are creative and resourceful people, and many will be looking at other areas of work to support themselves during this crisis. So if businesses don’t get a grip on what makes someone a freelancer and what doesn’t, and when they are duty-bound to ensure appropriate access to rights and benefits, then they may find that the workforce they depended upon will not be returning to them after the crisis has passed.

Sara Whybrew is Director of Policy and Development at Creative & Cultural Skills.

This article, sponsored and contributed by Creative & Cultural Skills, is part of a series promoting apprenticeships and challenging entrenched social inequalities, to create a more diverse workforce.

Working with the Self-Employed: A Best Practice Guide has been created by Creative & Cultural Skills as part of the Creative Careers Programme (CCP). It responds directly to feedback from the creative industries about the lack of clear information on working with the self-employed.

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Photo of Sara Whybrew