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Working practices that “wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry” have become the norm across the sector, with employees and freelances expected to work for nothing to enable their artistic output to be delivered. 

A group of people sitting in a circle holding papers

A culture of long unpaid hours at work and expectations that arts workers will take on duties in their own time are combining to make working life in the arts unsustainable for many.

Responses to the ArtsPay 2018 survey of pay and earnings in the cultural sector suggest that creative workers on temporary or freelance contracts are worst affected, as pressures are placed on them to do more in less time.

The findings support growing evidence of the increasing risk of burnout among arts leaders.

Unpaid hours

The survey reveals that salaries in the sector, which are already low in comparison with other industries, are even less favourable than they appear because they take no account of the unpaid overtime that workers are routinely expected to do.  

It raises serious questions about the sustainability of careers in the arts, especially for those with caring responsibilities or who are the sole breadwinners in their families. “Were it not for my partner's support I wouldn't be able to survive. The income, working hours and travel needs are unsustainable for full time employment and having a family”, said one respondent.

The observation that there is “a lot expected of staff to go beyond the job description, work extra hours and be available at all hours” is one of the most common themes to emerge from the research.

Claims that workers are effectively subsidising organisations with unpaid overtime are borne out by comments pointing to organisations’ expectations of “total commitment over and above the hours required, with little provision for overtime or TOIL [time off in lieu].”

Even when staff are offered TOIL, it may not be feasible for them to take this. One commented: “Currently my lieu running total is 81 hours… Haven't a hope of taking more than a couple of days’ worth of that time before it expires.”

Senior staff in smaller organisations are particularly badly affected, with some working many extra hours for nothing so that their organisation can afford to take on creatives for project work.  One commented: “These unpaid hours spent applying for funding and doing all the work required to set up projects is the main reason the company continues to function (and employ people). I estimate I donate about 15 hrs a week unpaid professional executive level work to the company and I know this is a common experience for others.”

One means by which organisations are squeezing more out of their staff is by appointing them on a part-time basis, but with a workload that requires full-time hours.

Another respondent commented: “We had our salary rates recommended independently by a Local Authority adviser when we formed our not-for-profit CIC. So on paper our salaries seem good compared to others in the sector. In reality, [this] means the lead role in our organisation has to earn a part-time salary to be seen to be on the appropriate recommended pay-grade whilst remaining affordable to the organisation. This also means the individual has to work additional hours for free or take lieu time to balance budgets with recommended salary.”

Testing commitment

Some employers are described as exploiting their workers’ passion for their art form. “The vibe is we should all be so happy to be in the arts and we should believe in the work. Even if this is true, and we do believe in the work, it is still exploitation and it means only wealthy people can afford to be involved – which is increasingly the case,” said one.

In some organisations, working long hours is seen as a test of an employee’s commitment. Such is the expectation that staff will “constantly go above and beyond”, that some workers find “working contracted hours is perceived as not wanting to go the extra mile”.

One respondent said: “My own journey has required me to work well-over my contracted hours for several years to 'prove' my worth, and this was entirely expected by my line managers and the organisations I worked for.”

It is a particular problem for early career workers on the lowest salaries. One said: “…there is an 'unwritten rule' within the arts that you will sometimes be working overtime and that your schedule can (and often will) include evenings and weekends, but we don't get compensated for this with a better pay grade.”

Freelance crisis

Those doing creative work on short-term contracts or on a freelance basis appear to be even worse affected than those in employment.

This is reflected in their earnings. Among the 224 respondents whose annual income in 2017/18 was all from freelance or self-employed work in the cultural sector, the average (median) earnings were just £16,000.

“We really need to understand and track how much work is done for free,” said one. “80% of my creative work is now unpaid. 10 years ago 80% was paid.”

A common problem is that contracts underestimate the number of hours work involved in delivering them. “When working on set fee models, the workload is sometimes unknown… [This] means that many are working for less than a suitable hourly rate based on the real requirement needed to deliver the project/art”, said one.

An example was given by a costume supervisor, who said: “Often at the time of negotiation there is not enough information… to make an informed decision and once a job has been accepted there is no room for negotiation when the scale of the job becomes clear. Costume supervisors fear being blacklisted if they are perceived as being ‘difficult’ and so many will struggle through on less than the minimum wage to get the job done.”

Remuneration for travel time is an issue for performers, and one musician cited “ensembles ‘stretching any existing rules’, for example by not paying artists for their time if they can get them back from abroad by 1pm after a gig the night before.”

Some freelance activity is simply not recognised as deserving any payment.
A professional conductor of an amateur orchestra said: “For the 2+ hours that I am in in contact with them, there is a considerable amount of preparation time that I am expected to do. This is mainly in music study and learning of scores – at least 10 hours a week. In addition a lot of correspondence goes on as well with the various groups. (Estimated 5+ hours a week). I also have to attend (unpaid) committee meetings.”

Similarly, an actor commented on the expectation that rehearsals and line-learning for performances is unpaid. “Theatres pay their staff and themselves but expect performers to work for free”, they said.

The same issue arises in the visual arts. An art facilitator explained that their £35 per hour “is meant to include your mileage, your travel time, your research and designing of workshop, your sourcing and purchasing of materials from various shops, your prep of materials, the set-up, the take-down and clean-up of equipment after. It works out way less than minimum wage when you factor in the time it takes to do all this. Factoring all the above you're actually out of pocket by the time you travel to work a one-hour job.”

They also questioned the common practice of short-notice cancellations. “Quite often projects are cancelled or postponed and there are no cancellation fees in contracts, even though you've set aside time and not taken on other work for those days. It wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry.”

Funder responsibilities

Expectations that staff will work beyond their contracted hours appear to be held regardless of whether an employer is publicly funded.

Funding bodies come under fire for failing to force the organisations they fund to adopt recommended pay rates, while at the same time attaching unrealistic reporting and monitoring conditions to their grant funding, adding to the time pressures facing smaller organisations.

One respondent, who is contracted by organisations and artists funded by Creative Scotland, said: “…they are supposed to follow Scottish Artists Union or Equity rates of pay, but they do not. The fee is agreed for a certain amount of hours but the project always requires I work at least double, if not quadruple the amount of time. I am not free to say anything or I know I will not be hired again.”

These comments are reflected by another respondent whose work comes primarily from organisations funded by Arts Council England. They said: “There are too many organisations still using zero hours contracts or below minimum wage, or not putting hours of work within contracts. Through companies that are regularly funded by the public, this should be monitored more carefully.”

The problem is compounded by those applying for project funding, who feel unable to fully cost the hours that will be worked on a project. One commented: “The applications that we make to the Arts Council include fees for all company members which we know are seriously under-estimated and that in order to produce high quality work with very limited resources we'll all be working at, or less than, the minimum wage.”  

“Submitting a realistic budget would inevitably mean the proposal would be rejected”, said another.  

Funder policies

AP asked the UK’s four funding bodies to explain their policies on pay rates. None of them recommend pay rates to their regularly funded organisations, nor impose sanctions on those who fail to adhere to the pay recommendations of industry bodies in funding applications or funding agreements.  

The Arts Council of Wales puts the onus on artists to “ensure that industry standard rates of pay are used.” It points them to advice about this from organisations like Equity, the Musician’s Union, UK Theatre and the Independent Theatre Council, and guidance on pay produced by a-n, the Artists Information Company. A spokesperson told AP: “to make sure that creative professionals are paid adequately for their work, we do support the Paying Artists Campaign and supported a-n and its artist advisory council (AIR) and other arts councils to develop Paying Artists Guides.”

Similarly, Creative Scotland expects “all organisations and projects in receipt of public funding to demonstrate best practice with regard to fair pay”. It too refers applicants to relevant industry pay standards, and says “All regularly funded organisations are committed through that funding to pay a Living Wage.”
Iain Munro, Acting Chief Executive, told AP: “Creative Scotland does not agree with a position that expects artists to work for very little or for free. We recognise there is an issue and our Arts Strategy set out the ambition to improve the financial context in which artists and other creative professionals develop and make their work.”

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) told AP it is “the role of unions such as the ITC or Equity to regulate contracts. We therefore expect organisations funded by ACNI to follow the most up-to-date guidance issued by industry regulatory bodies and to pay artists those rates accordingly.” For freelance workers, ACNI says that “pay rates are individually negotiated by each artist, and could vary widely depending on the scale and nature of the project and on the calibre of the artist”. But a spokesperson also said: “the Arts Council will consider the issue raised by AP in light of the survey findings.”

Arts Council England asks organisations to confirm in their funding applications that they are “aware of their responsibilities if employing people as part of their project.”

A spokesperson told AP that one of the criteria which National Portfolio and Project Grant applications are assessed against is showing how fees for artists, creatives and specialists for projects are in line with or better than recognised codes of practice and guidelines set by the relevant lead bodies. Its terms and conditions for its National Portfolio organisations “require them to ensure that salaries, fees and subsistence arrangements are as good as or better than those agreed by any relevant trade unions and employer bodies.”

A spokesperson said: “When employing someone on a contract or freelance basis, organisations should agree the number of hours needed to complete the activity, which should include research, development and planning as well as delivery. We expect that fees and salaries for those aged 25 or over should match the National Living Wage as an absolute minimum.  Fees and salaries for under 25s vary, but should match or be more than the National Minimum Wage.”  

What are your experiences of pay? Can you earn a living in the sector? How are funders’ policies applied in practice? Add your comments below to continue the ArtsPay2018 debate.  

Liz Hill
Arts Professional welcomes readers' opinions. Please ensure your comments observe our policy.


Hi can definitely relate to this. I have recently left my job working for an arts organisation and unfortunately I do not see myself working for arts organisations or institutions again in the future of things don't change for the better in terms of pay. To many people, it seemed like the dream job, but I just couldn't save properly I left because I simply cannot afford the job. I was working for a public organisation, and whilst there is talk about there not being much money when it comes to public organisations, however I do feel like myself and some of my colleagues were taken advantage of. I saw how the organisation and other organisations that friends worked for were able to spend large amounts of cash on lavish dinners for visitors, extras for exhibitions and all expense paid trips to international art fairs and biennials whilst the prospect of a pay rise was not possible and our jobs treated as more of a reward than an actual career that we had invested a lot of time, education and other sacrifices to earn. I have lost count of the amount of unpaid work done as well as the tasks that were given to me were way above my pay grade. I think that what was difficult is that there wasn't a proper HR department. I would like to continue working in the public arts but I simply cannot accept to work a job that does not allow me to save properly and constantly having to borrow money off other people in order to survive the next pay day.To many people, my job seemed like the dream job and many questioned why I would make the decision to leave. If only they know that when calculated all the hours worked (including those 'unpaid overtime hours') amounted to less than the national minimum wage topped up with mental health stress and constant about my finances. I have come to learn that many of my peers have been or are going through the same thing, but are pushing on with it as this is their passion and I get that. But it is very heartbreaking to witness as I have seen contractors and freelance practitioners getting ripped off too.