Survey shows freelancers are suffering. We need a new narrative.

21st October 2022

Freelancers are the backbone of our industry. They make up over 70% of the workforce in jobs ranging from actors, producers and musicians to engineers, technicians and wardrobe, and everything in between.

These highly skilled individuals create the exciting, dynamic and magical world of theatre that we all know and love. They are the ones who work hard to make our theatre industry world leading and help bring the UK economy a small fortune. In 2019 it was reported UK theatre brought in £2.7 billion annually.

Unfortunately, the hard work of freelancers is not being reciprocated. They are not receiving the financial and mental health support they deserve.

The Big Freelancer Survey entitled ‘Open to all, but not open all house – hopes and fears of the future of the UK’s entertainment industries’, (Executive Summary PDF) aims to provide insight into the impact of the pandemic on the freelance workforce of the theatre industry, how it might still be affecting them and the additional challenge of the cost-of-living crisis.

1497 freelancers took part in the anonymous survey, conducted by Freelancers Make Theatre Work in February 2022. The survey asked a range of questions around background, financial situation and work over the past 18 months. It also asked what their hopes and fears are for the future of the industry.

The results were shared earlier this month and here are just a few of the findings:

  • More than half (55%) feel ‘quite’ or ‘very’ insecure about their job as a result of the pandemic and cost of living crisis.
  • A fifth of respondents said they felt ‘quite’ or ‘veryunsafe in the workplace. This figure increased to a third who identified as having a disability and 31% for those from global-majority backgrounds.
  • 27% said their debt levels had increased since the pandemic.
  • Half of respondents had witnesses at least one form of harassment and discrimination. The incidents witnessed totalled 1701.
  • 16% are considering leaving the industry in the next 12 months.

After witnessing a mass exodus of talent from the industry during the pandemic due to freelancers not receiving any sort of financial support from the Government - surely that is enough to see how vital it is to change the narrative for freelancers in the future?

The industry has had two years to put a plan and process together to help retain freelancers and give them the proper recognition and backing they need. We don’t seem to have moved any further forward.

It seems freelancers are treated with very little respect and as though they are expendable. All freelancers want is to be treated fairly. Bectu Theatre Freelancer Branch puts it perfectly on its website with ‘Freelancers want the same things as permanent staff: fair pay; reasonable hours; good work/life balance; respect for physical and mental health; an inclusive and sustainable employment ecosystem.’ Is that too much to ask?

Respondents are certainly feeling the pressure and uncertainty of the industry, with some commenting:

‘‘I had hoped that the break of the pandemic would have created the headspace for a review on practices, but it seems like things have become only more deeply entrenched’.

‘I fear that many theatres are currently prioritising profit over people...

‘My heart has been regularly lifted and broken by the sector I work in, now it’s numb’.

‘Money is the biggest barrier for many of us and we need more support and security to stay.’

There are many more comments like these, which are heart-breaking to read.

The report provides recommendations, which include making the industry future proof ‘by building an infrastructure that is fair, sustainable and open to all’. Other suggestions include more funding and investment, industry wide safeguarding, access to training and development opportunities, holiday and sick pay and parental leave.

Chinonyerem Odimba Artistic Director and CEO at tiata fahodzi said in 2021 following the pandemic: "We create pathways not just for more ‘talks’ but for real information exchanges. Build a new funding model that allows money to go more directly to freelancers. Invest in the theatre organisations that already have the knowledge, insight and relationships with freelancers that represent that diversity." A year on and nothing has changed.

Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said: “Freelancers are the lifeblood of the UK’s entertainment industries, and these survey results are a resounding call for the industry to do better by them.

There is a monumental failing here and something needs to be done.

Without freelancers, there’s no theatre. What a harrowing thought.