Why the Coronavirus could prove catastrophic for freelancers… and everyone else.

As a union official, I help to represent about 15,000 freelancers working in film and TV throughout Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s an unusual job. Generally, freelancers aren’t renowned for being organised by unions.

However, in our case, we have managed to press the employers to accept industry agreements covering Major Motion Pictures, TV Dramas and a range of other production roles. We’ve been growing rapidly over the past five years or so.

However, my phone has stopped ringing about all of the usual issues that I have to deal with, and there’s only one thing on our members’ minds at the moment: The coronavirus.

I’d like to illustrate why they’re worried with a general picture of how freelancers often work (not just the ones I represent, but ones who perform the kind of consultancy roles that I used to perform myself before I started work for the union).

What I am describing here are the freelancers who do ‘consultancy’-type work, as opposed to ‘gig economy’ people forced into false self-employment:

A lot of freelancers set their daily rate on the understanding that they will only do (for example) 100 days of paid work per year. Some will have higher expectations, and some lower ones – but let’s use a round number as an example.

To get these 100 days, they will do plenty of unpaid training, mastering their equipment, networking, self-marketing, pitching for work and in unpaid periods of discussion and prep for potential work that hasn’t been confirmed yet.

They will often be the people who write the blog posts, speak on industry panels, write articles for industry journals, etc. These are the entrepreneurial lifeblood of the British economy, doing a lot of the thinking and innovation in the industries that they work in.

They’re the go-getters. They also often own equipment that they have to buy and maintain, and when you hire them, they bring that equipment. This is a very common feature of the freelance economy.

Like everybody else, freelancers have to plan their lives and look after their own families. Using the example I’ve given, if that freelancer wanted to plan around earning £25,000 a year, they would have to set their day rate at £250 a day.

They also have to make sure that each of their customers rents their equipment off them on each of those days at rate to cover an average of 1/100th of the annual cost of buying / licensing / maintaining / depreciation / consumables (i.e batteries, etc).

On a really good year that freelancer wins 110 days work. Yay! They get a decent holiday that year. Maybe buy themselves something nice?

On a bad year, they only get 90 days work and quite a bit of belt-tightening has to happen. It’s a risky business and freelancers are used to taking risks so that other don’t have to.

Now put yourself in the shoes of that freelancer. You’ve bought the equipment. You’ve written the blog posts, done the networking, done all of the unpaid pre-planning, you’ve pitched… and you’ve won! A six week job! 6 x 5 x £250 = £7.5k. Yay!

Remember, doing a good job this time, and making new connections, is vital to the task of getting the next one.

Then, imagine – just as you’re about to start work – somebody in your house becomes infected with a Coronavirus. The advice is that you should self-isolate.

If you can’t do those first two weeks of that new project, they’ll have to find someone else who will. And they’re not going to get you back on board once you’re ready. They’ll carry on with the replacement won’t they?

Most of the freelancers that I know live their lives in public. They have to if they want to work. I know that in most cases freelancers are going to do the right thing.

They will self isolate. They will lose that work. They will lose those kit-hire fees too. Because of the way things work, they’ll lose a lot more than £7.5k in the long run.

From a public health perspective, there’s another problem: Some of those freelancers won’t self-isolate. They may decide to keep quiet.

And then you get further down the earnings tree, onto those delivery drivers who are effectively earning less than the minimum wage with no real safety-net. The gig economy is large and growing. There’s a lot of insecurity out there, and for those people, this choice is going to get harder and harder still.

Option A is destitution.
Option B is keeping quiet about it and doing a job…. that involves door-to-door deliveries to dozens of homes a day!

This is what a high risk, low safety net economy looks like resilience-wise. Once all of this is over, our economies are going to need a new deal for people who work in the many precarious sectors of the economy. This includes the low-wage gig economy people and the more professional freelancers.

Because today they’re all in the same boat. It’s not very stable one, and when it gets turned over, the waves are going to soak everyone.

Paul Evans is an Assistant National Secretary with BECTU, a sector of Prospect. He is also an occasional contributor to Slugger O’Toole.

Photo by geralt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA