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Freelancers: The Creative Industries' Invisible Backbone

 Monday, 21st August, 2017
Imelda Staunton & CIF's Eliza Easton

CIF's Deputy Head of Research and Policy, Eliza Easton, champions the freelancers keeping the creative industries alive and kicking.

The creative industries sector - from advertising and radio, to design and creative tech - is the fastest growing part of the economy.

The sector is also a heavyweight in terms of employment. Nearly two million were working in the sector last year, meaning it employed more than one worker in every 17. In London, one in six work in either creative industries' companies or in creative jobs in other sectors. 

Of the creative workers in the sector, around half are self-employed. The sector is built on an army of talented and skilled freelancers - from the film director to the games designer, the potter to the sound engineer.

The Creative Industries Federation, where I am deputy head of research and policy, aims to represent the entirety of the sector to government. So we felt it was important that we understood the impact, good and bad, that policy-makers were having on this part of the workforce.

We heard from the businesses we represent that freelancers were essential to their success. Hiring freelancers brings expertise to creative enterprises, whether that is by bringing in an art historian to advise on a film script or commissioning a comedian to write a pantomime for the local theatre. Freelancers also allow organisations to be more ambitious with the projects they take: the average creative business employs fewer than four people, and so they often need that extra human resource.

But whilst they might be essential to the sector, we were hearing that the freelancers themselves felt invisible to policy-makers.

This is perhaps not surprising. To our knowledge, there had never been a piece of work that looks at the working life, opportunities and policy concerns of the whole creative freelance workforce. This was a significant gap in understanding - particularly as government looks for ways to tackle the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ - epitomised by companies like Uber and Deliveroo. We were concerned that policies designed in response to these sorts of companies could unfairly damage the livelihoods of freelancers in the creative economy if the government does not understand who they are or how they work.

And so the Federation decided to publish ‘Creative Freelancers’ - our newest report on the state and status of those self-employed and working in the creative industries. To gather evidence, we conducted a survey of creative freelancers, almost 700 in total, asking them why they were self-employed, what their working lives looked like and what key barriers to security and growth were. We then spoke to 50 creative businesses who regularly hire freelancers, and financial and legal experts who work to support them.

Showcasing the results of this survey, alongside research done by all of the different sub-sectors we cover, our report highlighted many areas where things needed to change in order to improve the working lives of creative freelancers.

The level to which this part of the workforce has been invisible to government is made obvious by some of the policy recommendations in our report. We had to ‘go back to basics’ and look at policies where freelancers were simply not considered when that policy was designed. It is not just that policy makers didn’t know these workers existed; the pervasive view of freelancers as “people who can’t get a proper job” or as people not doing proper jobs has been unfair and unhelpful. We believe that there would be positive and practical consequences to the freelance workforce being better understood and valued, not just by government, but more broadly.

For example, proper recognition of the value and importance of the freelance workforce should make it easier for freelancers to secure a mortgage or proper rates of pay for what they do. It might encourage HMRC to simplify its tax processes. Given the importance of international freelancers in the UK’s creative economy, it should inform Home Office thinking on constructing a new visa system fit for what businesses need. Universities should not be penalised in assessments because they have produced graduates with successful freelance careers instead of full-time jobs.

Creative freelancers are often innovative and entrepreneurial, with many juggling a string of different contracts and work streams in portfolio careers. However, it is clear that many struggle to access good quality affordable advice on issues such as protecting their intellectual property rights.

We also found that there was some poor business practice in the creative industries - including late payment and the prevalence of unpaid work. Although this report was directed at government, the Federation committed to raise these concerns with its members and industry partners, and champion the importance of freelancers to the sector as well as to government.

It is comparatively recently that politicians have begun to acknowledge the creative industries in the same breath as other parts of the British economy. The sector has recently been named one of five sectors in this government’s industrial strategy, having not even been mentioned when Vince Cable launched his equivalent in 2012. So it is not surprising that the role of the creative freelancer has been overlooked. But now we are raising the profile of this invisible backbone to our sector, working to get them the recognition and support they need and deserve. Our report is just the start.

We would love members of the Hospital Club to join the Federation. We not only share your building (we are next door!) but we hopefully share your passions and interests. We also have a membership for freelancers who want to continue to feed into policy and meet industry leaders. For more information, visit here.