If you’re an avid reader of the Guardian Culture section or follow me over on Culture Vulture – you’ll know that this year has seen A LOT of discussion about what it means to be freelance and organisations treatment of freelancers.

One of the positive elements of the pandemic and unprecedented nature of 2020 (a year that has far seen the likes of supersized locusts, Tiger King, conspiracy theory that Art Attack’s Neil Buchanan is Banksy, Kanye West running for president and so much more) – is the spotlight focus on freelancers and increased awareness and understanding. As a self-employed freelancer working across the creative, cultural and hospitality sectors, it’s been really interesting to watch the freelance discussion unfold in light of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on our workload. It was also strangely surprising to learn how LITTLE our government AND organisations that regularly employee freelancers, really understand how what it means to be freelance; how we function, the never-ending hustle and the realities we face.

2020 has been a very challenging year, especially if you’re creative freelancer and with nearly half a million freelance art’s jobs set to disappear by the end of the year, it’s going to get a whole lot harder. We’ve been called by the Guardian “the crown jewels of the arts” and our lack of protection and support across the pandemic has been widely noted. For those who don’t work in the creative sector, you might be surprised to learn that the arts is comprised of anywhere between 60-87% of freelancers (depending on the art form, with theatre being towards the top end) and this workforce exists unprotected, relying on organisations and businesses to be “good” to them and treat them fairly….well spoiler alert, that doesn’t always happen.

Pre-pandemic, creative freelancers inhabited a world often without a voice, rarely paid appropriately or fairly, expected to attend endless meetings without payment, paid with day rates that haven’t changed since the 1990s, with days up to 16hrs long, unfair demands, unpaid internships, high workloads, few professional development opportunities, often late payments, no holiday, contracted days not matching the expected project output or workload (it’s not until you’re delivering on the contract that, that becomes clear) and a complete lack of boundaries with an expectation that you’re constantly available and on call. For those wondering, why on earth anyone would want to work in that type of freelance environment, it’s important to note too that being freelance in the creative and cultural sector, isn’t always an empowered choice; it is a cultural sector norm – if you’re passionate about working in the arts, then you’ll probably go freelance at some point.

Cultural sector unethical “norms” (many listed above) are so commonplace that many don’t view them as bad practice or challenge them. These norms have led to freelancers accepting this unethical treatment, hustling even harder to secure work and what we often end up with are individuals who are overworked, skint, unable to be creative, burnt out, often struggling with mental health issues, without a clear support structure to access, often pitted against each other but too scared or unable to speak out as they fear losing future work or being labelled “difficult”. (Which actually happens – I know a few freelancers who have challenged bad practice and that difficult” label has been given and they’ve lost work.)

The normalisation of these often unchallenged practices, mean that even some “good” organisations engage in this behaviour because what is “acceptable” and “fair” has been chipped away for many years – so much so, that when an organisation actually does pay you fairly, treat you well and invite your actual opinion, I speak from experience, you’re SO taken a back and grateful! Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great organisations out there who do treat freelancers well, but there are also LOTS who don’t, who thrive and benefit from the unfair treatment of freelances and an imbalance of power.

Pre pandemic the cultural sector conversation had started about the role of organisations employing freelancers: questions were being asked like – What’s the duty of care? Why aren’t we listening to freelance voices? Lockdown accelerated this discussion and freelancers (excitingly) started to find their voices and many organisations realised they’d stopped valuing and prioritising their workforce (employed and freelance included) long ago. Nothing like a pandemic to expose how miserable you are working in a sector that doesn’t value you! I say that flippantly, but it’s been the honest experience for many folx I know.

A lot of the freelance debate so far has been around understanding the dynamics and structures which have enabled this unethical landscape to evolve. In my opinion, the cultural sector’s treatment of freelancers, evidences what happens when A. You let a sector regulate and govern itself, within a structure that thrives from the imbalance of power and prioritises institutions and venues above people. B. You allow a culture of silence to grow – for many organisations, it’s an open secret of their poor freelancer treatment and NOBODY used to talk about it! C. Lack of understanding of the freelance sector as a whole – if you watched the Government debates about freelancers, you’ll have noted that a common theme was that we were all tax avoiders (all freelancers I know pay their taxes!) secretly earning £100Ks here, there and everywhere (We wish!). Unpicking those debates, it was clear that the government and many strategic organisations responsible for advocating freelance issues didn’t have a scooby. D. The obvious one, when you cut a sector’s funding to the core and yet, triple your expectation and focus on delivery outputs, unethical practices embed and thrive. Most arts projects are done on a shoe string and rely on the passion of the project team to get it over the line and lush – people’s passion for their projects, can lead to self-sacrifice, for the sake of the project. I have done this MANY times.

You can see how complicated the freelance discussion is, but I believe NOW is the time for change. Employing and engaging freelancers in a project is such an asset – as someone who engages freelancers for work regularly and as a freelancer on projects, I see regularly the wealth and diversity of freelance skills, innovation, range of voices, resilience, ability to problem solve, build relationships and much more. Being freelance and working on different projects with different organisations, means your skill set never stops developing, you’re living and learning in the present. Freelancers are and should be recognised for the wonderful assets they are, and the sector, which has played a huge role in disempowering them and enabling a culture to exist where unethical treatment of freelancers is leaning towards the norm, needs to step up, invest in them and make positive changes.

2020 has been a stepping back positive moment for freelancers. We’ve seen freelancers come together with initiatives and lobby groups like The Freelance Taskforce and Tyne and Wear Cultural Freelancers sphere heading freelance discussion and pushing the agenda forward. AND many organisations have stepped up to figure out how we can move forward TOGETHER whilst OWNING their imperfections. The balance of power has shifted, in my opinion, the arts would collapse without us – the importance and dependency on freelancers had even gone unnoticed by freelancers themselves; institutions need us just as much as we need them and we’ve been reminded of our agency. My hope, is that we see the creation of a “freelance charter” that clearly stipulates some industry guidelines to support organisations in their work and treatment of freelancers – a charter that goes above and beyond the legal minimum, one that is transparent, fair and meaningful (no thank you to a superficial performative declaration).

So, to my fellow freelancers, remember and know your worth – keep connected with your freelance community, protect yourself and keep shining a light on unethical practices and calling out organisations. And to organisations, who employ freelancers, value them, do better, treat them fairly, listen to them and make those changes. Take some time out to reflect on your recent employment of freelancers and talk to them – get feedback! I believe, that together, we can rebuild a beautiful and brilliant sector – one that has shed its toxic and unfair treatment of our talented freelance workforce.

Rachel Horton – The Culture Vulture and Director of NIBE