UK freelances face destitution as they have been 'forgotten' in the government’s rescue package for businesses
Ministers must provide financial protection for the self-employed; other countries' deals may offer potential solutions, says the NUJ.
Freelances have been offered little by the Chancellor's Covid-19 package for workers, despite pleas and lobbying by the NUJ and other trade unions.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the UK government would pay grants covering 80 per cent of the salaries of workers to keep them on the payroll as businesses struggle during the pandemic. While this was welcomed, there was no package to protect the 5m self-employed.
Almost a third of NUJ members are freelance and the union has lobbied ministers during discussions with the industry. The Federation of Entertainment Unions published a statement yesterday calling on the government to introduce an income guarantee for freelance and self-employed workers for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak.
As part of a series of policy recommendations, the NUJ said:
- As freelances are not entitled to statutory sick pay, the government should remove the lower earnings limit for qualification for sick pay and increase the level from £94.25 to the equivalent of a week's pay at the real living wage.
- Sole traders should be able to apply for the same loans as businesses.
- The savings thresholds for universal credit must be dropped as many freelances are barred from applying because they will have money put by to pay tax and other contingencies.
The government did agree to ask HMRC to defer its date to collect payments on account, due on July 31 and the next quarter of VAT payments.
The NUJ's freelance office has been inundated with members who are already suffering.
"I am a sports journalist left with no work at all as a result of the near-blanket cancellation of all sport. As a husband and father, I still have considerable monthly outgoings – just limited funds with which to meet my responsibilities."
Another sports journalist who has lost most of his work said:
"I have a mortgage and children. My children finish school and nursery on Friday, yet we have been told we will still be charged the monthly fee for the nursery. Thank god my wife is still working, but her own job could be in jeopardy despite her boss reassuring her she is okay for now."
Other members said:
"I'm a freelance photographer most of my work is to some degree event based and right now I can't see anything in my diary that is likely to continue and there seems no likelihood that this is going to abate in the next four or five months. Overheads are going to continue though and I'm currently looking at outgoings to see what I can cut.
"I work as a freelance journalist/producer for a broadcaster who had booked me in for 23 shifts in April. At the moment I'm still booked in for those shifts. However, I expect the majority will be cancelled due to COVID-19."
"I'm a British freelancer based in Paris. We are in full lockdown. It's hard to move without papers. In terms of my situation, I'm now desperate. I've lost 6,000 Euros overnight, and that money was going to be keeping me alive. "
"Since the outbreak my most recent potential contract for April has been put on hold and it looks extremely unlikely that I will be contacted for any further consultancies in the coming months. I work at one organisation on an almost weekly basis. As it stands, I have three remaining shifts and nothing else in the foreseeable future. I have no other work and do not know what I will do. I have two small children to support and am keen that the government is aware of the impact of this crisis on the self-employed."
In the Republic of Ireland, following pressure from the ICTU, self employed workers who suffer loss in income can apply for payments from the Department of Social Protection scheme.
Pamela Morton, freelance national organiser, said:
"Freelances must not be forgotten in the government's efforts to protect working people. Already our members are seeing work dry up and face suffering real hardship. The Chancellor must step up with a meaningful package that will allow our members to be able to work or to fund them through a time when they have no work. We are working flat out to secure a proper deal for our members in negotiations with ministers and officials."
Natasha Hirst, chair of the photographers' council, who has also seen her work diary empty, said:
"Freelancers are incredibly frightened about their future and angry to have been overlooked in the latest support package. The government must urgently look at options to provide financial support for freelancers that is equivalent to that being provided for employees; one idea is having an equivalent 80 per cent package based on previous year's self-assessment. Lessons can be drawn from action already taken elsewhere in Europe, but whatever the solution, it needs to be straightforward and implemented quickly."
Séamus Dooley, assistant general secretary said:
"There is a crisis right across the media industry in the UK and Ireland. Freelances workers are witnessing their income drop and it is disappointing that the UK government has ignored their plight, despite direct appeals by the NUJ this week.
"In the Republic of Ireland, the inclusion of self-employed workers in the special scheme introduced by the Department of Social Protection and the suite of measures introduced in respect of bank debt and rent will be of some assistance to low paid and precarious workers. However, more needs to be done for freelance workers who are rapidly losing commissions.
"I have spoken to a freelance who has been forced to withdraw from work due to a health conditions and will depend on social welfare for at least four months. Freelances in the regional press sector are fearful for the future as media organisations introduce lay-offs and short-time work for staff, reducing pagination and in some cases are ceasing to publish local editions.
"That situation is mirrored in the commercial broadcasting sector. North and South this is a period of real uncertainty for freelance workers."
The European Federation of Journalists' Freelance Expert Group has gathered information on member governments' responses to the crisis. Here are some examples:
Belgium: Freelances will receive a full-time allowance for March and April. There are no bureaucratic hurdles, but they must quit their activities. The self-employed can count on a possible exemption or postponement of the payment of social security contributions for one year for the first two quarters of 2020.
Start-up self-employed workers will be granted a reduction in their provisional social security contributions for the year 2020. For cases of forced interruption, access to the replacement income (bridging right) will be simplified. The replacement income amounts to € 1,266.37 per month; this becomes €1,582.46 if you have a dependent family.
France: The government will pay 70 per of the gross income, so-called "pigistes" (freelances) should be included in this compensation scheme as they have the same rights as staff journalists. Radio France is paying freelances the gross amount paid at least equal to the average of the total gross amount paid during the last six months, i.e. from September 2019 to February 2020 inclusive. Current contracts are all maintained, there will be no cancellations.
Finland: There is a 50 billion "Corona" package of loans and grants. Freelances will be eligible for unemployment compensation, between €700-800 a month. Some cultural and journalism foundations are offering short-term grants.
The Netherlands: The Dutch government supports all independent workers applying for support with an amount equalling the social minimum pay. The support will be granted for three months without checking other sources such as private capital or partners' income. According to the Minister of Finance, there will be no cap as to the continuation of the support, if needed.
Norway: Sole proprietors and freelance workers, many of whom have seen their income vanish overnight, will qualify for state-financed sick pay after the fourth day, instead of after the 16th day, and they can apply for the equivalent of unemployment benefits amounting to 80 per cent of their average earnings over the past three years, up to NOK 600,000.
Sweden: The government will pay the entire cost of all sick pay during April and May. Self-employed persons will also be compensated, as they can receive standardised sick pay for days one to 14. To reduce the risk of the virus spreading in society, central government will pay sickness benefit for the first day of sickness.
There is a special relief package for culture and sports worth 1 billion crowns (approximately € 100 million) but it is not yet clear whether self-employed freelancers will receive pay from the unemployment benefit fund without putting their business on hold. Details including reforms of the unemployment benefit fund are being discussed by ministers.
A Swedish Union of Journalists' survey among its 1,670 freelance members showed that half of the freelancers say they have missed out on assignments.