Freelancers' Voices Have Been 'Marginalised' During The Pandemic, Says Deputy Mayor Justine Simons OBE

Justine Simons OBE
·5-min read
Photo credit: Lottie Bea Spencer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lottie Bea Spencer - Getty Images

From ELLE

‘Desperate to Dance’ is what I want emblazoned on a T-shirt right now. This afternoon I’m off to get my first Covid-19 vaccine and I’m feeling emotional as I reflect on how much life has changed over the last year. For months, it feels as if we’ve had to contain ourselves and try not to think too much about jumping up and down to live music at a festival, dancing with friends on a sticky night club floor or sitting in a dark auditorium with hundreds of strangers as we all witness a hotly anticipated play unfold.

During lockdown we turned to creativity more than ever to get us through. Art and culture have provided comfort, distraction and entertainment. It’s seen us sing in virtual choirs, write poetry, paint rainbows to display in our windows and watch endless series such as The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton or my spiritual 'TV home' as a government official, Parks and Recreation. But fundamentally we humans are social beings. We love as much as we need interaction, nuance and ideas that spark when we come together in real life.

This week we reached a difficult milestone as we marked the one year anniversary of theatres closing in the UK. It brought into sharp focus the challenges the cultural world faces, being the first to close and the last to open during the health crisis.

Photo credit: Lottie Bea Spencer
Photo credit: Lottie Bea Spencer

The pandemic has laid bare the fragility of life as a creative. For all the billions of pounds our creative economy generates, the tourism it brings in, the awards we win and the soft power it invites to the world stage, it’s never been a more testing time to be working in the arts. The vast majority of the creative industry is made up of freelancers and small businesses, moving from project to project, building portfolio careers long before the term was coined.

Behind the scenes there is incredible talent who build sets, design costumes and create lighting. The creative supply chain alone in London is worth more than £40 billion a year. But many of its workers have fallen through the net when it comes to Government support.

Photo credit: Chris Jackson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Chris Jackson - Getty Images

The pandemic has hit freelancers hard, with up to 60% losing all their work. Before Covid-19, the National Theatre employed almost 2,000 freelancers a year, nearly double its ‘regular’ workforce. I know this loss first-hand from my partner who is an artist/curator. When lockdown hit last March, all six projects he had in development immediately fell through. In the last 12 months, we’ve lived a strange year involving me staring at a screen all hours of the day trying to safeguard and support culture in London while he invents digital art projects from the sofa.

Of course, freelancing is not all bad - it brings flexibility. It’s a lifestyle that enables workers to be part of a crew for the duration of a film shoot, a summer festival, a fashion week or theatre show. It gives you the chance to bring magic to life and make memories for audiences, whether it’s working behind-the-scenes on Hamilton one week or at fringe show the next. But it’s a lifestyle that often results in a lack of job security, no paid holiday, no maternity or paternity cover, no training on the job and, more often than not, poor working conditions such as low and late payments and unpaid overtime. People often talk about ‘building back better’. For me, this has to mean fixing some of the systemic issues facing freelancers. How can it be that the average salary of a dancer or artist is less than the Living Wage?

Photo credit: Oli Scarff - Getty Images
Photo credit: Oli Scarff - Getty Images

More needs to be done and many of the solutions lie at a national level. There are three million freelancers across sectors excluded from all government support, but why isn’t there a dedicated Minister to advocate for them? With no one body representing freelancers, their voices have been marginalised. We need to look to countries like France and Germany which have enshrined support for freelancers in their social security systems, recognise the intermittent nature of the creative economy and support the rights of the self-employed.

We know we don’t have all the power in London to fix this, but we do know that we need the creative sector firing on all cylinders to rebound successfully after the pandemic. You need only consider the tourism potential, with four out of five tourists admitting the reason they come to London is for its culture, and it's clear that focussing on the creative industry will be paramount to the country’s growth.

This is why the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan and I are doing everything we can to help nurture our capital’s culture sector. We are putting freelancers front and centre to help design the right solutions to best support them and have launched a programme to work with freelancers, creative organisations and unions to get a better deal for self-employed workers. We want to create a new Freelancers Charter so it’s clear what makes for good and bad working practices for all. We also need to fix inequalities in the industry and improve working conditions.

Freelancers in the creative sector will and must always be at the heart of the change, but employers must be part of the solution too and lead the charge. That’s why safeguarding the future of London’s creative freelancers is essential for all of us because in one way or another, we’re all desperate to dance.

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