Stop taking creative labourers for granted
Some people choose this career from the beginning, intrepidly venturing out as sole operators with bright eyes and bushy tails. Some freelancers, as I have been for over 15 years, attempt to fit our round personalities into square office roles over and over again before eventually accepting that this route is our true path.
I will not write about all the crappy things that I have experienced as a freelancer, but as the percentage of gig economy workers continues to grow, I think it’s time to recognise the systemic lack of protections my cohorts and I face, and thereby the changes we need to champion in unison.
If you’re fresh to freelancing—or considering it—it’s important to acknowledge the emotional impact of the constant pitching for work, rejection, competition and instability that is the reality for most freelancers. Only a minority can make a solid income from it, and even then, it often takes a year of hard graft seven-days-a-week before that comes to fruition. You sacrifice time, boundaries, and risk unusual demands, tax confusion, lack of mental health support, no superannuation in most cases, and loneliness.
The pandemic forced many who previously took their full-time, on-site roles for granted to envision a different way of working. Whether those plans entail contracting, temp work or a change in career altogether, millennials and Zillenials, especially, desire the ability to determine work hours and conditions that don’t rely on the old model of long-term, ‘one job for life’ or ‘one job/role at a time’ scenarios.
There are many young creatives who can’t oblige a work life that requires the same dedication of office-time as their parents sacrificed. They are disheartened by the thankless role of turning up in shirts and skirts to slave away under a ticking clock ’til five, before packing into overflowing train carriages for home, just to ensure the bills are paid on time and the cat is fed.
However, freelance life is not a life of empowered, nomadic adventures in independent living for the majority of those who opt to work for themselves in the fields of writing, production, design, marketing, photography or film.
There’s been an 86% growth in Australian freelancers, over half of them with Bachelor degrees. The majority are male (65%), and their major source of work is via friends and family (40%), according to Finances Online.
I can honestly attest to being an anomaly then, since I am neither male and have never gained work via a friend or family member. It’s been a hard graft of working—in my teenage years and early 20s, largely unpaid or paid a pitifully menial amount—and taking full-time contract work often to both assuage my guilt at not fulfilling societal expectations of a graduate, or purely to pay my rent. When I finally bought my apartment two years ago, nobody was as surprised as I was that all the years of pitching and working and dreaming of bylines in publications I revered would actually pay for real estate. Even if it hadn’t, those bylines were spiritual nourishment.
But it took decades to make that happen.
For freelancers starting out in their 20s and 30s, perhaps straight from university or transitioning from full-time office jobs, the culture shock can be blistering. It often requires greater time and energy commitments than a typical job, since on top of your actual workload, you’re constantly seeking new avenues to ensure you’re still working next week and next month. You’re managing your taxes: keeping receipts, documenting earnings and spendings, filing away contracts and learning what it means to agree to particular terms and conditions as far as the use of your work. Not to mention spending an inordinate amount of time chasing after unpaid invoices, or underpaid invoices, sometimes for weeks or even months.
You’re not earning superannuation in most cases, so the new government proposed policy to draw down on your superannuation to buy a home won’t mean a lot to a freelancer (unless you’re very savvy and have been voluntarily contributing significant amounts into your own super fund from the get-go).
There’s no HR to go to when your client bullies you or finds a sneaky clause in the contract to drop you from a project with pay. If there is, it’s pretty easy to imagine who the HR team is really there on behalf of (hint: not you). There’s no free mental health service via your workplace. The reality of freelancing is that while it’s heartbreaking at times, it also tests your resilience—and for those who can bear constant rejections and the exhaustion of chasing invoices and crying over their miserable tax returns, it will make you more resilient than steel.
Unsurprisingly, but disappointingly nonetheless, the gender pay gap also exists as a significant obstacle for freelancers. Every year, financial services provider, Payoneer, releases a report on the global freelancer industry. Their 2022 report indicates that regardless of increased representation and education levels among women, the gender pay gap has also grown since their previous report two years ago. The good news is that many freelancers maintained their existing work levels and income throughout the pandemic, with approximately a third of those surveyed reporting that their work levels and income increased.
As the economy shrunk, businesses from the largest global behemoths to the smallest start-ups recognised that they needed savvy, digitally literate workers who could be trusted to work remotely. They needed workers who were already prepared, with their own tools and connectivity, to take on tasks with short notice: complete them efficiently, and then deliver them reliably without a great deal of investment in providing new skills training for their full-time employees. Businesses slashed their workforces exponentially, resulting in a surge in the casually contracted laborers. Freelancers were the flavour of the pandemic, if you will.
Will it, can it last?
That depends, I think, on whether employers recognise that despite freelancers being a convenient alternative to employees, they are still human beings with the same needs, goals, desires and basic rights as employees. We have bills to pay, rent or mortgages to service, children, or pets, or elderly parents to support. Paying freelancers on final delivery of their work—weeks or months after the work has been published, or providing no compensation for work that has been delivered but not used due to internal reasoning, or a global pandemic making that travel story irrelevant—is unethical and astonishing. It’s akin to ordering a five-course meal only to remember half-way through that you’re actually dieting, so therefore you don’t need to pay for the food or the services that went into providing it.
While there’s very little representation of freelancers in Australia, with unions for the creative industries— especially media—lacking any real desire to fight for change meaningfully and loudly, hopefully it is only a matter of time before Australian freelancers look to the United States for example. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act became law in 2017, which gives independent contractors in New York City the legal recourse to pursue penalties for employers who neglect to compensate them fairly.
To date, Freelance Isn’t Free has investigated non-payment and underpayment complaints from over 1,500 freelancers and recouped $2.1 million in earnings. That number is more than just dollars. It also represents an abuse of power where companies have willingly and knowingly denied the human beings they contracted fair wages. Humans who need that money to support themselves, like everyone else. It’s mind-boggling that this happens at all, let alone systematically and in a capitalist system where we universally acknowledge that money is the currency of survival.
I don’t write this to leave any freelancers or aspiring freelancers with the message that this is a Wild West world, full of gender pay inequality, late or non-payments and lonely hours spent talking to your indoor plants. It’s not.
I get to spend long hours walking my dogs on the beach, teaching Pilates and yoga, starting work at 11am and ending at 1am if that’s what I feel like doing. I can wear neon yoga pants and blast The Cure or Amyl and The Sniffers at full volume if I feel like it. I can choose to never work with a bully or a tyrant again, if it becomes clear that is the scenario unfolding on a particular project. If I was a full-time employee, I’d be stuck listening to elevator music and playing polite while copping a torrent of viciousness daily.
Plus, when I see my name attached to a story that I really care about, revealing the experiences of people I have enormous respect for, which means something to them and to, at least, some of the people who will read it—that is nourishment for my soul.
If that’s a feeling you want to cultivate, and you have faith in your own resilience, jump on the freelancing ship. But when you don’t get paid, or you’re bullied or gaslit, don’t accept it silently. Join a community group of freelancers in your industry on social media or IRL, investigate your rights via Fair Work, and speak up.
The chances are that you’re not alone. It’s only through uniformly demanding better conditions that we will get them. And women? Don’t be afraid to negotiate up: we’ve got a gap to leap over.
+ IMAGERY: via onlinehoney