The Stage – News – Coronavirus: Third of freelancers considering leaving industry – report

A quarter of freelance theatre workers have been unable to access emergency income of any kind and a third are considering leaving the industry, a survey of more than 8,000 participants has found.

The research also revealed that 36% of the freelance workforce in the performing arts received no support from the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme or coronavirus job retention scheme.

The statistics came from the Big Freelancers Survey, conducted by Stage Directors UK, Freelancers Make Theatre Work and Curtain Call in June 2020. They have been revealed amid widespread calls for the government to ensure its recently announced £1.57 billion support package will reach all areas of the industry, including freelancers.

The statistics from the Big Freelancers Survey were published as part of the report Covid-19: Routes to Recovery, which looks at challenges faced by freelancers in three areas: emergency relief, sustaining the workforce, and the recovery of the industry.

Key findings in the report include:

  • D/deaf and disabled theatre workers suffered disproportionately in terms of being unable to access emergency relief, with 51% ineligible for the government’s coronavirus support schemes.
  • Early-career workers – the most ethnically diverse group – were also worse affected, with 92% of recent graduates ineligible for either scheme.
  • Only 4.5% of freelance theatre workers applied to the industry’s 22 benevolent funds, because there was “not sufficient organisation and communication to make a tangible difference”.
  • The regions of the UK where the highest proportion of freelancers are likely to leave the industry include Scotland (40%), the North of England (36%) and North Wales (35%).
  • Nearly half of stage and company management who identify as people of colour report they are likely to leave the theatre sector.

According to the report, it would require a figure of about £672 million to undo the effects of the “rescue deficit” experienced by an estimated 65,000 workers in the sector. It describes this as “an unachievable scale”.

The report warns that “the rescue deficit will widen” if the commercial sector is offered a financial package without the benefit being passed on to freelancers – and calls for the commercial sector to be required to extend support to freelancers as a condition of any funding received.

Recommendations for the government include a new seed-funding strand to sustain the workforce, which can be accessed by all skilled theatre workers, rather than those defined specifically as “creative practitioners”.

The report also recommends a single-entry-point recovery fund that could either be administered by the Arts Council, or through an existing fund.

As the industry recovers after Covid-19, the report says that safeguards may be required to ensure funding for the Arts Council’s national portfolio organisations benefits the workforce.

It states: “Freelancers constitute 86% of all people of colour employed by NPOs.

“Therefore a stimulus package that is pointed at institutions without freelance conditioning will target money directly towards an 82% white identifying permanent workforce and away from the group which contains 86% of all people of colour working in NPOs. We recommend a set of clear and specific conditions which ensure NPO benefit is shared with freelancers.”

The report comes as industry figures warn that the lack of support for freelancers is affecting the sector adversely.

Equity general secretary Christine Payne said that if the investment did not reach creative workers then “we risk the diversity and success of the wider creative industries”. Payne argued that the theatre workforce had lobbied hard for the deal, and said they must not now be left behind.

However, when questioned in parliament and on BBC Radio 4 about how creative freelancers would be able to survive the months ahead, culture secretary Oliver Dowden indicated that the support package would be used to protect buildings, telling Radio 4: “Freelancers are already able to benefit from the freelance furlough scheme. I have to say that the essence of this package is about preserving those cultural institutions.”

The government has also faced repeated calls to extend the Self Employment Income Support Scheme, through which eligible workers receive their final payment in August.

Bodies including BECTU, Equity, and the Creative Industries Federation previously warned that entertainment workers faced a “financial cliff edge” without the support.

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