Pandemic and Precarity in the Cultural Sector

Marlen Komorowski and Steffan Donnelly present research showing the impact of Covid-19 on Wales’ cultural freelancers, and outline a sustainable way to recovery

The cultural industries in Wales have suffered immensely due to the impact of Covid-19. Theatres have been closed, festivals postponed, and production of films and TV stopped at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020.

Even though we can see a gradual reopening of cultural activity in Wales, the backbone of the cultural industries – namely freelancers, who make up 70% of the theatre and performance workforce in Wales – have still not fully recovered from the financial and job losses in the industry.

Governments and public organisations did act. Support schemes for the self-employed and the creative sector, such as Arts Council of Wales’ Resilience and Stabilisation funds, the Welsh Government’s Freelance Fund, and the UK Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme scheme, were introduced at the height of the pandemic in 2020. But as we move through 2022, the situation is still very bleak for many freelancers in Wales.

While venues are reopening, audiences tentatively returning, and freelancers being employed again, the disproportional impact of the pandemic has only highlighted further the inequalities and precarious working conditions that have long been part of the creative industries. Given the political willingness to support, we see the current moment as a unique opportunity to advance efforts to address the deep-rooted issues the freelance workforce faces and to spark positive change for the industry as we enter a post-pandemic world.

The precarious working conditions of the cultural freelancer workforce 

In order to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the cultural freelance workforce in Wales, and explore their recovery from the pandemic, Cultural Freelancers Wales partnered with Cardiff University’s Creative Economy Unit to undertake a survey in 2021. The results showed that the impact of Covid-19 was severe.

92% of cultural freelancers in Wales indicated that their work has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. On average, freelancers lost 76% of their income in 2020 and the loss of income in 2021 showed only a small improvement, with losses of 59%. Although there is an improvement in perception of future prospects between 2020 and 2021, almost a quarter of freelancers are still uncertain about whether they will stay in the industry.

Financial support schemes for the cultural sector from the Welsh and UK governments and from other public bodies such as Arts Council of Wales gave some relief, but had limited long-term impact due to the inequalities and precarious working conditions that were a feature of the sector long before the pandemic. One freelancer’s story exemplifies this:

[My pre-Covid investments] took more than half of my income [i]n the year before Covid, so the grants that I did receive didn’t account for this long-term investment. I’m now in a lot of debt, having taken out 2 credit cards with £6,500 limits just to survive the year.

Our research found a number of inequalities. Firstly, freelancers in the cultural sector face financial instability and receive below-average payment for their work. Cultural freelancers’ average annual income was just over £17,000, which is 53% of the average salary in Wales. Cultural freelancers in Wales do not allow for the same career progression as might be expected among ‘traditional’ employees. These difficulties have been amplified by the pandemic, but appear to be deep-seated, with cultural freelancers having no access to benefits, sick pay and holiday payment. 

Women, people of colour, D/deaf and disabled freelancers, and those with caring responsibilities experience increased financial inequality.

This issue has been voiced clearly by our survey respondents:

I have been denied holiday pay, sick pay etc on the basis of self-employment. [The] myth of self-employment is that earnings are sufficient to offset these costs. It’s institutionalised low pay. Also, industry rates are not commensurate with the work done or, more importantly, comparable with the salaries of people within organisations.

This makes the cultural sector unattractive to work in and can have a long-term impact on the sustainability and availability of cultural activities, services, and goods in Wales.

Secondly, women, people of colour, D/deaf and disabled freelancers, and those with caring responsibilities experience increased financial inequality. Some 34% of respondents have caring responsibilities, and noted in the survey that combining those caring responsibilities with a freelance job was often especially difficult. The experience of intermittent school closures during the pandemic made this group especially vulnerable. This situation had a more profound impact on women, who make up 52% of the cultural freelance workforce in Wales. One survey respondent stated for example:

As a woman working in TV it’s almost impossible to have a child as filming hours are average 14-hour days and travel. It is really hard to balance life.

Women are also paid less: twice as many women as men are in the £5,000-10,000 income band (the most common band for male income is £25,000-30,000). Governmental support and recognition is also limited for cultural freelancers with disabilities. D/deaf and disabled freelancers mentioned barriers such as complex language in documents, and the general feeling that authorities do not actually understand disability.

Finally, cultural freelancers face barriers due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure in Wales that reaches specifically rural areas. One of the freelancers in our survey stated:

Some work [since Covid-19] began to filter back in digital formats, but I am limited by a lack of broadband here in rural Wales (satellite is my only option and it is hugely expensive, with data limits).

In contrast to the general perception of cultural activities being located in cities, about 41% of cultural freelancers in Wales are located in rural areas. A particular challenge that cultural freelancers in rural areas still face is a lack of basic infrastructure such as high-speed broadband, which impacts their competitiveness and access to available work. The effects have been amplified by the shift to digital work following Covid-19 restrictions.

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


Towards a road to recovery

To address these structural issues, we identified a number of recommendations for key changes in the way the cultural sector should be structured and nurtured in Wales.

High-speed broadband needs to be made available over the whole of Wales, particularly in the rural areas (as is also recommended by the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales in its 2020 report). This should be backed up with training to improve and diversify the digital skill sets of freelancers in Wales, so that they can upskill to increase their competitiveness and gain better access to available work opportunities. We also need to create more visibility for freelancers in the sector in Wales. The Creative Economy Atlas Cymru, a detailed directory mapping creative and cultural activity in Wales developed by Clwstwr, features a freelancer layer which provides an essential contribution to strengthening the viability of the sector. However, there is still  more to be done in the future.

Within the sector, a number of areas need to be rebalanced. The first of these is national funding, where we need to ensure equitable distribution across all areas of Wales. This may require adjusting the current emphasis on venues, which tend to be in the major urban areas, to take more account of arts activity in smaller population centres. This in turn may have a knock-on effect on wider use of the Welsh language in arts activity, because Welsh tends to be used most in the north and west, areas which are currently funded less well than the south and east. One of our survey respondents pointed this out:

There is very little support for freelancers in North Wales. Barriers include financial barriers to accessing support, funding opportunities, work opportunities, transport links, accessible arts culture venues and spaces, no infrastructural support for emerging/intermediate arts to train, and gain experience or exposure in the area, limited access to venues and audiences, limited access to other artists and good practice.

The second rebalancing area is within venues and organisations, where greater attention needs to be paid to diversifying boards and the workforce (adopting targeted programmes to achieve this where necessary) and revising working conditions so that they reflect the fact that without freelancers many of the activities of a venue or organisation could not be delivered. Low-cost contributions to this include putting freelancers on boards (and ensuring that expenses are paid to allow low-income freelancers to participate), offering spare places on in-house training, acting as networking centres for the work of local freelancers, holding interviews and auditions virtually (to cater for those who may not be able to afford to travel to an interview), providing welcome packs and dedicated working space for new hires and debriefing freelancers at the conclusion of a project, to name just a few. 

What we now need to do in Wales is work, step by step, towards a more resilient and better-funded freelance workforce

More ambitious goals could be achieved if venues and organisations prioritise engaging and supporting Wales-based freelancers, seek to protect their ‘freelance spend’ as a proportion of turnover, and review contracts to ensure that they are not disadvantageous to freelancers (for instance, contracts due to start within three months might be honoured on a sliding scale, and might include income protection insurance and sick pay guarantees). Another option would be a mentoring system to allow early-career freelancers to gain the skills they need to allow them to take on more ambitious projects. The overall aim here would be to nourish indigenous freelance talent and build a critical mass which will allow freelancers to meet all reasonable demands from the cultural sector in Wales.

The Welsh Government, with its Cultural Recovery Fund for Freelancers, rose to the challenge of the pandemic retrenchment in the cultural sector (its net positive rating of +36% among freelancers in our survey was the only positive one among the main providers of pandemic support). And the positive impact of funding and support by the government was also acknowledged by our survey respondents:

Until the pandemic, there was little support as I fell outside of the normal funding available. This has improved due to the freelance funding and I am now able to use this funding to rebuild the business.

But what we now need to do in Wales is work, step by step, towards a more resilient and better-funded freelance workforce which will be better able to withstand any future major challenges.

This article is based on the January 2022 report Road to Recovery?, available in English or Welsh, commissioned by CFW in collaboration with Cardiff University’s Creative Economy Unit (CEU). The report is based on an online survey (September-October 2021) distributed to freelancers within Wales, and is also informed by responses from 250 freelancers who took part in focus groups throughout 2021.

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Dr Marlen Komorowski is impact analyst at Cardiff University’s Clwstwr Programme. She is also Guest Professor for European Media Market at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and senior researcher at imec-SMIT (Studies on Media, Innovation and Technology)-VUB. @MarlenKomorows1
Steffan Donnelly is the incoming Artistic Director of Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (Welsh-language National Theatre). Previously a freelance director, actor, writer, and Artistic Director of Invertigo Theatre Company, he is a founding member of Cultural Freelancers Wales and a board member of National Theatre Wales.@steff_donnelly

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