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(Length: 14 minutes)
The Freelance Task Force has come to an end of it’s 13 weeks.
For those of us who have an interest in worker politics and believe that advocacy around freelancer sustainability is an intrinsic part of our roles, the “work” of the Task Force was not new, and also will not end here. However, having this work formalised under a recognisable moniker, and also having it valued through payment has offered a sense of legitimacy to this work that I had not previously experienced. This is not to insinuate that legitimacy is only attached to recognition and payment, but rather that it has been a tool through which to communicate with an audience who tend to attribute value through recognition (eg your affiliation with an organisation they know) rather than through excellence (eg taking the time to listen to individual perspectives accounting for their intersectional knowledges). Freelancers are individual workers by their very nature and therefore don't have the luxury of a hyperreal brand personality through which to wield influence. Rachel Mars described being part of the Task Force as like having a little power jacket to put on. For me this demonstrates the most powerful illusion of working collectively, even if that collectivity is structured through difference and individual interest. This little power jacket is sewn with a thread of threat, a thread of "there are more of us than you, and now we have our own channels of communication". Through the structure of sponsor organisation payment, each organisation has financially declared their belief in this process. For these purposes it matters less whether they actually believe that the whole system should change and that freelancers should be better supported, and more that they have paid for the cloth that has been cut into 160 or more little power jackets.
I haven’t checked with Fuel, but with some fag packet maths it seems it cost around £400,000 to run the Task Force for a total of 13 days. This is a significant investment by any project standard (obviously a drop in the ocean in comparison to the upcoming 2022 celebration of nationalism and xenophobia, but that would be an extreme example whatever the financial weather). This investment has secured direct employment of around 160 individuals. At this point in time I feel it is not hyperbole to acknowledge that this is 160+ mouths fed, 160+ rent or mortgage payments made, or 160+ people’s expertise remaining in the industry just a little longer.
The Task Force outputs have been multifarious, and I only really know about the things I've had involvement in. That comes with some sadness, but also some ambivalence due to the recognition that I don't have to be involved with everything and that everyone being involved or even aware doesn't automatically equal success. Laura and I have been directly involved with the Freelance Supporters Menu (developed with support mostly from the phenomenal "Burn It Down" working group), the Producer Survey and resulting data report (with a selection of great producers, driven by fan favourite Dais Hale), and the New Ways workshop (led by Gillie Kleiman). The Task Force has also given us the opportunity to create otherwise impossible connections between geographically and disciplinarily dispersed freelancers. It is possible that this has been the most transformative aspect of the project for me. It connects us out to dispersed and diverse knowledges I didn’t even know I needed to have relation with.
For 13 days work this is remarkable. It is, I feel, significant value for money.
This should not, however, obfuscate what a complexly difficult and damaging process the Task Force has been. The closed-door recruitment processes and disparity in wages for the exact same work ensured that the Task Force was built on inequitable foundations. There were consistent disagreements amongst individual members of the Task Force, as power dynamics demonstrated that they are a problem of privilege rather than a problem with organisations as a concept. The same damaging structures were created with absolutely no thought or critique. People of colour were repeatedly silenced. Deaf and disabled colleagues were left with barriers to their access. Administrative capabilities became the language of power through which others could be silenced by circumstance and therefore excluded from participation. To counter this, some of the more benevolent members of the Task Force made their entire workload about questioning and trying to dismantle these power grabs. Some of the final “full” Task Force meetings were framed as check-ins of care, rather than about forwarding solutions, answers, and outputs at an inhuman accelerationist pace.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, Laura and I received £150 a day remuneration on a job share, therefore £150 x 6.5 days each. In reality, we did more work than this. The added hours brings our day rate down to somewhere in the region of £55 a day. I welcome anyone salaried to tell me the last time they knowingly worked for around £55 a day. To help out that’s £6.87 an hour which I think is just slightly under what I earned when I worked in HMV 14 years ago at the age of 19. I welcome anyone salaried who has similar family circumstances to me (the sole household earner with two children under the eligible age of childcare support) to tell me the last time they knowingly worked for £6.87 an hour. I welcome anyone salaried who has a similar career background to Laura and I (cumulatively two BA’s, two MA’s, a PhD, a teacher training qualification, training in Specific Learning Difficulties, accountancy and book-keeping training, experience in dance, theatre and the visual arts, experience running organisations, over 15 years experience freelancing and over 10 years facilitation experience) to tell me the last time they knowingly worked for £6.87 an hour. I really hope it was a long time ago.
I want to be quite emphatic in pointing out that we did not work extra hours because The Yard (our sponsor) forced us, or expected more of us. But at the same time I am fairly tired of the framing that it is my choice and that we could just, at any point, stop working if the paid time runs out. This is not quite how it works. With jobs with concrete outcomes it is easier to understand where you are in relation to the outcome, what has led to more time being required than expected. With Task Force the job was to attend industry meetings, understand and advocate for better practice for working with freelancers. This amorphous role brings with it an element of being “on Task Force duty” as often as you possibly can. If we didn’t attend a meeting, we might miss something that is being announced or changed. There is no wider company briefing for this that will bring us up to speed, or a colleague we can chat to in passing in the office. Like with all of our practice as freelancers, if we don’t know something, we are just behind, and therefore just not as good at our jobs. As producers it is our job to know the nuance of the shifting Arts Council England guidelines, or the percentage of successful applicants to a niche charitable fund, or have the most insight possible into almost opaque programming procedures. We do that entirely out of “project” time and therefore unpaid. We all do it by having our ear to the ground all day and night, seven days a week. All of us. This is a massive waste of human labour. That won’t change without transparency and better communication from organisations and funders and very different processes across the sector. If we didn’t do this unpaid labour we wouldn’t be in a position to take on the paid labour and we wouldn’t be very good at our jobs. But we are. Very good, and very tired.
Having said that, in a push to ensure that we are not undermining the wage capacity of ourselves and others in the workforce, and as part of a promise made during our recent DIY workshop, Laura and I have committed to finding ways to practice in a manner that ensures all activity is paid for. We’ve begun this process through a timesheet system and protocols for accounting for time. In the interim we will be balancing on our privileges to ensure different methods of accessing money to complete this work. For example, residency and training time for arts support workers in which we could focus on all the peripheral work that is necessary but doesn’t feed into one specific outcome. Another example is working with organisations to streamline their processes when working with artists and those in supporting roles so that the burden of administrative responsibility is not placed unduly on to freelancers. At some point it’s going to mean us all being a bit more honest around what funders, donors and ticket buyers are getting for their money. I know the workload within organisations is also huge. But if that means that the majority of people working in the sector are overworked and underpaid it is our duty to change the sector right now. We must diligently and transparently articulate why difficult decisions and a culture shift are necessary to make it a sector to be proud to work in. As demonstrated in the data collected in the Freelance Task Force Producer Survey, 73% of independent producers are subsidising their producing with other work and benefits. If the subsidy is with benefits (as it has been in my own case) this is a wildly distracting way of distributing public money when UBI is so frequently scoffed at. If it is with other work this is perpetuating ableist, classist and gendered practices. This is very much the case when only 46% of people claim to work part-time hours on their producing. That means 54% of people are working full time hours and presumably at least 27% (but anything as much as 54%) are working full time hours and still needing to subsidise their producing with other work and benefits. Why would anyone want to promote this as a style of work to future generations? Some of these considerations and many more led us to producing the Freelance Supporters Menu during our Task Force time.
Producing the menu during this time threw up another difficult, albeit somewhat expected, realisation connected to the perception of our work. Truthfully the Freelance Supporters Menu is mostly made up of thoughts Laura and I had discussed well before 2020 and Covid and more visible or more publicly discussed economic disparity. We have been considered outspoken (with all the gender connotations attached that this particular adjective), extreme and radical. Now that these same thoughts have been disseminated to organisations cloaked in the little power jacket of Task Force, organisations have described the provocations as "vital", "useful day-to-day", "brilliant", "a gift", "thought-provoking", “superb” and “sector-changing”. It is not lost on us that they feel that a little bit of their buy in has made these thoughts worth hearing.
Of course, there has been some disdain at the contents of the menu. No one has come to us directly, which we'd welcome, but we've heard tales that one building director felt it went too far and was unfair for them as a director. I am truly sorry for any moment that a person feels upset, which is why we wrote the menu, anchored in kindness, for a more equitable future practice for more people. And, of course, the public show of appreciation for a document, and the undertaking of the work suggested within that which is necessary to make change, are two different things. Being able to tweet a worker-centred "radical" aphorism whilst simultaneously making secret redundancies isn't a skill set I admire, not that anyone asked my opinion.
I guess I don’t have a neat summary for the experience of working on this quite unique, quite powerful experiment. It has exposed a tendency for individuals to seek to replicate damaging behaviours when they centre themselves. It has also shown that within 13 days you can demand better access for more people (this wasn’t done perfectly, but the beginnings of a better way of working were begun); you can have BSL interpreters and captioners at every meeting; you can work in creative and complex ways remotely; you can have productive meetings entirely centered on wellbeing and care; and you can disagree and have different outcomes and still value and welcome plurality.
To end on the most positive note I can, in the final “Burn It Down” meeting, we discussed the way this had become a space of friendship between two dimensional heads and shoulders, scattered across the country and even the continent. Gillie Kleiman shared a text by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery titled Joyful Militancy: Building Resistance in Toxic Times. The dedication at the front of this book spoke to me as a gratitude to all of those individuals who have dedicated their mid-pandemic summer to advocating for, what they believe to be, a better life for more people.
To everyone in cramped spaces and stifling atmospheres
letting in fresh air and finding wiggle room
embracing messiness and mistakes together
learning to move with fierce love and uncertainty
making us capable of something new