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Changes in freelancer (not just the arts) pay

I sometimes wonder what the ideal total cost of running the art sector in the UK would look like.  If we added up the total cost for each theatre, music venue, art studio, gallery, and independent cinema etc. would need to at an effective level, not at an excessive, level, what would this be?  And how would we calculate it?

I'm interested in this number, because I feel as if the arts are often asking for better support and that those who are in a position of power, with arguably a better viewpoint of the whole sector are often incapacitated to speak up on the matter. During covid there were definitely extensive changes in this model, and we have started to see more people analyse the process on a public forum.  So in this approach I’m not adding much new to the debate that most theatre workers would be unaware of it, but I am interested in reframing parts of it. 

I’m interested in this subject because I think that we use words around income in the arts sector from a deficit position and I would be interested to see what would happen to our own psychology if we started to change, I mean reframe, our analysis of arts-based income.

During the CF:SLR report, a report done by multiple freelancers and companies working in the arts along with the greater london authority, one of the ideas that was jumped upon was my argument to change holiday pay to social pay.  Not something that we could do on an industrial level without government, but something that alters our understanding of the importance of holiday pay.  For me, and for many like me, holiday pay is strictly speaking not for holidays.  I use and rely on what holiday pay I earn to support my disability.  Friends care for their kids, others volunteer, both in the charity sector and their time towards other artists and arts ventures. 

This idea expanded a little more when others started to acknowledge the benefit of this concept in relation to upskilling theatre workers. As a majority of our workforce are freelance, we rely on the ability to apply for grants, or, plain and simple free time, in order to pay for upskilling in the sector.  Some companies offer training to their staff that they could easily expand to include some freelancers but they can not pay them, and they would rather have income support for the extra costs that a couple more bums on seats in a training environment would instil. Social pay therefore started to grow into an acknowledgement of the, what I will call, freelance taxes that we experience in the arts sector.  We are not often working in freelancing positions on a 9-5, 6-month salary and so freelancers are not engaging with the same contexts that a freelancer that works in the business world might have.  

Social pay started to be talked about as what I felt was essentially an acknowledgement of the gap that our presence in a building or long-term company missed. People spoke about providing artists with an extra fee to acknowledge that they will often have to train themselves, as well as mentor others, in a capacity that occurs in all job sectors, but goes free in ours due to the lack of building or company based work that we do.  We jump between spaces, and when we jump we miss out on the supporting mechanisms that more long-term capitalist-orientated businesses manage.

This is important, and I think the way that we analyse and refer to our sector is also important.  I therefore think we need to frame more elements in relation to our freelancing sector differently. 

One of the elements that interested me on the CF:SLR Cohort was the presence of people working in business who had come with the Greater London Authority to offer advice to us artists.  At one stage a very nice man asked us, ‘what do you want, what can we offer you’?  When people didn’t answer not because they were being rude but because they didn’t know the answer, he then offered, ‘I can give support in business structures, the law, I can look at any of those things’?

What struck me was a feeling felt I’m sure by others that we had those things.  Of course we had those things, and if anything we have a series of providers that are set-up specifically to support us in areas like arts business and arts law. I was also surprised that the business world seemed in these instances to not be able to acknowledge that we run successfully in our own field.  They seemed to view us more as a failure in theirs.  

The deficit of knowledge for me came instead from the fact that a large percentage of the arts world straddles a place in-between business and social function.  We all know this, but they didn’t and that is useful. We provide services much more similar to a library in that we offer knowledge not inherently linked to the views and control of the government, yet we are inherently linked into governmental, though I prefer the term community-driven, funding. 

Weirdly, we also inherently promote the United Kingdom. Something which I wish MPs would acknowledge more openly.  If we cut the arts out of the history of the UK we would possibly be left with just colonialism and hills as a representative of our identity on the world stage.  Colonialism being inherently indited within the shows and films and songs that we have created means we can’t escape it through the history of our art, but I would argue UK art opens up our identity to a group of people with emotions and feelings and every-day life, and not just the super-power (or super-abuser) that we once thought we were.  Dodgy as that is. 

I think that what I am getting at here is that the arts world might do better psychologically if we can reframe the way that we communicate our business with the world around us.  I find it fascinating that there is an assumption that the arts should be free, like a library.  The number of times Netflix, the BBC licence and songs are stolen is impressive.  People are individually reliant on our work, but do not want to pay for it, and I am saying this completely without judgment.  If socialism regrew, art would thrive; under capitalism it becomes something to steal, because where we need clothes to keep us warm and food to eat, our psychological well-being and ability to contextualise the world around us is not seen as an entity that is necessary and should be paid for.  How can you pay for a tool when you don’t yet know how useful it will be to you? You can’t explore it, under captialism, unless maybe you steal. There are better arguments than this out there on art and capitalism, but it is interesting.  I would argue we’re probably representing the most stolen entity of our time, and if people could steal theatre tickets more easily they would likely steal those too.

Changing the conversation around pay and re-establishing our position I do think will help.  We can’t make MPs give us more money, but we can discuss our situation better. 

I also come from a place where I struggle sometimes with the grants and funding that some of the arts, and some people with disabilities, or some businesses, get given.  It’s weird to me that some people seem to be celebrated when others are left to fall through the cracks.  Having grown up beside a coupe of people in, or close to, poverty, I physically struggle to place the arts before someone else’s need for shoes, food and now heating. I’m not champing at the bit to reduce public spending on other areas is what I am saying, but I am frustrated with the lack of engaging and public ownership or entitlement to the work that we do.

As a side note, I am aware that we benefit and often encourage this entitlement.  I train actors and am aware that our openness and beliefs that anyone can act and should be able to act empowers a very thriving education system.  I am far more likely to have work than may cousin who went down a similar higher educational route into geography. In education we are actually very successful.  Some of that is tied into fame and the release in psychology that the ability to become famous can give some people.  But I would argue that it’s also because we teach a form of living, and there are very few industries outside of the arts world that focus on living.  Maybe psychology, but often psychologists have to hold things in so that’s a separate kind of functionality to an actor or director or creative who can let themselves be a bit more, I think the word is potentially, free. 

I think what I mean by entitlement is actually the approach to stealing.  The fact that I believe that the arts in the UK are placed into a position where we expect artists to work for free, and that that is done by the government as well as, accidentally, done by the general public. 

This also occurs in other areas also.  And I think one of the dialogues that we can expand upon, and is important to expand upon, is in fact our close relationship to freelancers working outside of the arts on a similar basis.   I guess what this is coming to is that I think we can reframe the work of freelancing in relation to the arts, but we can also do this in relation to workers in other sectors.  By this I’m focusing on workers who do not have a strong overall relationship to the company that they are working for; who can move on and be moved on at any given time, and who therefore share similar contractual-based issues that we do.

So what changes need to be made to freelancing and what changes in this area supports just the arts, and what changes support a wider issue with the idea of freelancing?  Also what happens when you don’t hack an extensive tie into the company?

I like cleaners.  I like security guards and cleaners.   I think they often work in the arts, and they often show a bridge between the problems in the arts world that are present in wider UK freelancing structures.  I also like extras, and extra work.  Solely because extra work is one of the few low pay working freelance environments that is supported by a wider business model; because the extras pay the agents and the agents (the 9-5 workers) organise a price of payment.  

When we compare these roles we see large differences.  Cleaners and security guards in the arts are often hired in by an external company, there are a good few instances where this is not the case but I would argue on the whole most arts buildings  use an out-of house company hire in relation to cleaning, security and food.  I think this is a mistake having worked in the food department of a theatre but I understand the desire to create a reduction in overall management.  

Some things are very obvious when it comes to cleaners and security guards when you speak to them in their work.  The first is that cleaners working for external companies are often expected to come in for small hour contracts at unsociable times.  Interestingly a number that I have come across do have a long term relationship to the arts building.  As they are in most mornings, most cleaners have a relationship to those who run the building and those that I know, seem to have decided to stay with this building that they know for a number of years.  Those that I know well would even prefer to be employed by the building itself. 

This connection in it’s current state gives them an emotional tie and opt-for support to the building, meaning that they are happy to pick-up more unusual and unsocial working hours, to clean-up unexpected areas and to be moved about as and when needed, without additional personal benefits that I think they deserve. 

On the whole I believe that many cleaners aren’t given fees for cost of travel, or for unsocial working times, or for being asked to work short periods of times. Working times often being early morning, and when events are on, late evening too. They can also often work for a total of 2 hours at a time. As a side note their ability to use the in-house coffee machines and fridges also seems to respond to a more arbitrary decision of wider budding use by the in-house team.  Their complaint system also goes through a separate company that they know but is not the arts venue. 

In a similar position, security guards have longer working hours.  Those who work more permanently for security tend to be present in the building for 5-8 hours days, and they therefore often operate in a more extensive external zone to the in-house staff.  Ie. They often don’t share the same spaces, and a more clear relationship is formed between them and the staff that are managed by the main company.  Some arts spaces use in-house security through the stage door team so in this instance there are mirroring in behaviour.  I’m sure there are other set-ups also.

Security are often paid less than the stewarding in-house team, but are in for longer hours. When they have problems, they too have to negotiate first with their management who then negotiate with the management of the building them meaning that their problems also go through a tiered chinese whisper scheme. What interests me most about security is the permanence of their temporary spaces. In short, many people who work in security aren’t given seats.  If they could feedback straight to the in-house team I believe this would likely change. Also in places where I have worked the security team often don’t have access to the staff kettle, kitchen and the security set-up is often very minimal.  A small factor, but coffee is expensive and sometimes for long hours necessary, and their set-up I think might change if they were view more internally to the building and the non-temporary state of their position becomes acknowledged. 

At all venues where I’ve worked the cleaning staff and security staff are consistently more intersectional than the rest of the workforce.  They are often not from the west, they are often working class, they are more likely to be religious, more likely to have experience of disability and prison, English is likely to be their second language and they are often from the global majority, and often darker in skin tone. I have watched artists come into a building and realise the only staff members who are like them are the cleaning or security staff.

What do these workers have therefore in relation to extras in TV and Film, as well as the theatre and arts freelancing industry?

Extras are often more intersectional than the acting team.  They are also hired through external companies, agencies.  When complaints need to be made they often go through the agencies, who advocate on their behalf, and often do so well because a complaint means further income.  Why does a complaint mean further income?  Because the extra world is supported by a series of additional fees which means that when standards are not met, people receive payment. 

In extra work you are paid for travel, food costs, and featured experience on top of occasionally being paid extra for days where standards where not met.  Are standards alway met and payments always made, no.  But these extra costs are often fought for, and are able to be fought for through the agency.  Access to seating, tea and coffee, payment for unusual working hours and travel is thought about within temporary set-ups consistently. 

When someone is working at a slightly higher rate on a 6 month contract costs like travel and food can be analysed in line more easily with hourly pay.  The slightly higher pay of freelancing can cover the time spent not working and doing free admin of job applications, interviews and personal advancement outside off the industry more easily. Contracts can also be negotiated over time, and they have a relationship to the company to assess each issue.  

Like the arts mentoring costs, the overall issue seems to be that we undervalue the freelancing needs of lower wage workers who often, as the above cases show, are hired through external agencies or on temporary bases regardless of how permanent they are.  While many theatre workers are not hired through external agencies, the lack of ability to complain, the lack of a long-term relationship to the company building and people, I think takes over our ability to negotiate payment in a similar way.  

How many low wage freelancers are paid an additional fee for admin time?  When I work in larger universities this admin fee can very occasionally be a-given.  Payment should be made for the extra emails and communication that freelancing takes up, the changes in rota, the changes in location often as well as the communication of issues, such a Covid 19.  If we total factors like travel time, administration time, lack of in-house facilities like a fridge, greater complication from complaints and longer time to resolve issues due to a lack of knowledge and need to go through multiple people (often leading to more administration time).  Over the cost of a whole year, I would argue that in a lot of cases, low wage freelance workers, are being asked to work a significant amount of hours for free. Comparable to the way in which our use of Netflix, the BBC and songs, also expects a low or no cost entity for something that many of us use every day. 

This leads me to an interesting point.  Often in the arts the argument is that others expect us to work for free because we enjoy our work, but while this may be a factor, I think these ideas suggest that this is not the only factor.  In fact I would go as far as to argue that to frame it as the only factor is one of a number of ways in which we psychologically make it harder for us to argue our way to more fair pay. 

Do I think that we our wages are low because artists are expected to have a personal journey (with a personal journey being reduced under captitalism) ?  I’m not sure.  Do I think that there is a systemic reduction in low paid work, leading to greater lack of parity, yeah definitely.  

So this brings me around to my original point.  How much would the arts world cost ideally if totalled it up completely. 

I’m not sure that when I ask this question I am talking about in-house workers, and I think that clarity is important.  While there are many in-house workers who are overworked and underpaid, I’m not sure that they experience quite the pay reductions that the freelancing workers experience. So while the question above may suggest a pay raise for them, what I think that question ultimately does is rephrases the issue as, what would the arts realistically cost if we started to renegotiate how we pay freelancers so that we can pay them fairly. 

And I am writing this with an awareness that unfair freelancer pay goes much further than the arts alone.  In fact I have experienced more unfair pay from large universities than many arts based projects.

The Recreate agency argue to pay workers a daily stipend through the arts council. Often projects that get made through the arts council, I have found, are more likely to be properly paid. That being said, the arts council process in and of itself often requires large quantities of free work, some of which I beg to question is really necessary. So companies with good will intentions go some steps in blocking this whole, but they can not do it alone.

From the CF:SLR cohort we learned that small to mid size companies are often the main employer and advancements of freelance workers careers.  These companies often work through grants and charities and therefore their funding is scrutinised and cut accordingly.  Often cut at the point of freelance work.  These were the main companies who wanted to offer more, but physically couldn’t. 

Companies and workers seem to want, like the social pay, therefore to find routes of support too.  But also, how many do this for the staff that work in customer service, security, cleaning and food? 

I’ve often felt that the living wage charity actually works to keep people on lower pay.  I’ve no idea why their analysis of living wage doesn’t include parameters for 0 hour contracts given that some workers are expected to earn approximately 11 pounds an hour for what can sometimes be a 2 hour day.  Or in other cases multiple 2 hour periods throughout a day.  That seems crazy.  The cost of travel alone makes the overall payment under minimum wage.

So for the above reasons I wanted to propose some rules.  


I think a minimum wage cost expectation should be that if working for under four hours a company should have to make a payment for travel.  I think that would help the freelance arts world as well as other freelance (0 hour contract) worlds.  It would also help people who straddle both.

We could also argue that companies who regularly hire freelance (0 hour contract staff) also have places to circumnavigate their needs like a fridge and free or reduced hot drinks/coffee.  That staff who work in venues like this may also have a space to go if they arrive early - this is because sitting in a coffeeshop in-between shifts costs money.

I think that 0 hour workers and low wage freelance staff should be paid a yearly or periodical admin fee.  To account for the extra communication time that this kind of working environment has instigated. 

I also think that if 0 hour workers or staff are expected to buy appropriate clothing that they should have appropriate clothing fee.*

*This had a rant to it that I’ve cut out. 

I think that companies that regularly hire staff through an external company should have yearly or bi-yearly checks for complaints and changes, which go above regular assumed communications.  (The notion that people can come to you as a manager often isn’t enough to highlight prolonged functioning issues).  I believe they should also have to legally clarify complaints processes between both companies.

From the arts sector, it would be nice that positions that are freelance that require workers to have a level of training pay a fee in-line with the need to upskill those skillsets. (It would be nice to recognise that £35 or £30 an hour does not cover this and often correlates in real terms to £15 an hour). 

If a company hires you for a half day, it would be nice if company workers could negotiate that travel time should likely be acknowledged within that half, as travelling between different companies for same day work is often very difficult, meaning you’re more likely on half or reduced working days to come out with one single payment for a whole day because the others won’t match up. I’m not sure but maybe clarification of morning, afternoon and evening working times would be of use.

It would also be nice if it was more closely acknowledged that small acts and favour from these shorter work period often go unpaid, meaning unpaid extra homework that detracts even more from the standard of £30, £35 and £45 an hour.  Giving people who miss our work outlines, responding to questions post session and communicating next steps, as well as references take up considerable amount of time when totalled up in a given year. 


I need to be clear that I’m not writing that because I want to be antagonistic.

I know that many arts buildings would go under if we asked for these payments.  I once analysed higher earner pay in relation to low staff pay in arts institutions through the charity commission. The annoying truth is that it doesn’t matter if you cut the payment of highest paid earners in arts companies, that will never come close to covering the problems of underpay within the lowest.  (With the exception of the Royal Opera House who do have an extremely large high pay employee rate.  I do also wonder about payments that companies make for building costs that seem to come often over staff needs but potentially in some cases will come from grants. How nice it would be cover staff yearly admin time fee through grant, as opposed to a new carpet or floor.)

To pay arts freelancers appropriate fees would likely cripple the arts industry. Arts companies and buildings are struggling so they in their present state can not make these payments, they can however acknowledge them and in some instances make small changes; and arguably some in the commercial sector can make these changes. I think therefore that it may be worth noting that we aren’t paid poorly because the sector wants or desires us to be and we are aware of this.

So why am I writing this? I think developing an understanding of what a healthy and non-abusive arts sector looks like is important.

This ultimately brings us back to the overall request of most artists that we need more money from the government to run effectively.  We know this. We are like a library.

To highlight the total cost of what we do in fact need to be running at, without the expectation of free low-earner work, helps us to reframe how the government and public benefit, and in some cases, steal, from the poorest (and often most intersectional) arts workers (inclusive of cleaners and securty staff) without realising. Stealing through separation. Some charities can afford to pay us more if we highlight this, and the government do need us to help support the UK's identity as well as economy.

We have more sway than some business and political workers realise when they relate us to their models of industry.

The arts work to support education, tourism, personal learning and entertainment while also promoting the world's understanding of the UK, regardless of how much some artists would like to separate themselves from this country. We experience a strong desire from people to engage in the arts, but to do so at a very reduced cost unless they are being trained specifically. 

We are important but…

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