Freelance workers in the UK’s creative industries have spoken of the devastating psychological toll of being “forgotten” and “ignored” after falling through the cracks in government support schemes.
The shadow cultural industries minister, Tracy Brabin, said the past three months had been “absolutely seismic, torturous and mentally gruelling” for many freelancers, with little apparent appetite in government to support them.
Brabin, an actor for three decades before entering parliament, said many felt utterly despondent after months with no income. “There are thousands of people looking at the rest of the year and wondering whether they are going to have to remortgage the house, move back in with their parents, or not buy the home they had saved for. These are seismic changes in people’s lives,” she said.
The grassroots organisation Excluded UK estimates about 3m taxpayers are ineligible for the furlough scheme and the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS). Among the left-behind are thousands of freelancers on short-term PAYE contracts, widespread in the creative industries.
A survey by Women in Film and TV found 67% of freelancers were unable to access any government support, and the broadcasting union Bectu found half those surveyed had borrowed money to survive the lockdown. A Musician’s Union survey found 19% of respondents were considering abandoning their music career.
In a sector worth £112bn a year to the Treasury, Brabin said it was as if workers were being punished for choosing a portfolio career.
“There are people in government who don’t necessarily understand the freelance life and the nature of our sector,” she said. “You go from feast to famine, you might have high savings but this is often for your tax bill or pension, and you’re particularly exposed to poor mental health.”
One self-employed digital media specialist, 48, who wished to remain anonymous, said being ineligible for government support after all her contracts were cancelled in March was “catastrophic” for her mental health.
She was not furloughed and wasn’t eligible for SEISS either, because more than half her income was taxed via PAYE. The lack of parity with other workers was “heartbreaking and devastating”.
“I feel hopeless, let down, rejected, marked out by the government as somebody that is not valued, I feel like my career is over,” she said. Surviving lockdown devoured all her savings, set aside for buying a home, leaving her “ashamed” to have moved back in with her parents.
Twice during the crisis she planned to take her own life and wrote goodbye letters to loved ones.
“It’s been bitter to swallow, watching millionaires furlough staff and people I worked alongside furloughed with our tax money,” she said. “Meanwhile, thousands of taxpayers like me are caught without any rights at all because of the PAYE system.
“HMRC has been actively encouraging freelancers to be on PAYE for years – it’s very common now. The information is at their fingertips, yet we’ve been ignored with no explanation. It’s hard not to think the 50% clause was a deliberate move to save the Treasury a big payout.”
Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, said the government’s schemes were “too simplistic” in not accounting for the different patterns of employment in many industries.
“The impact on people has been traumatic. They’ve paid their taxes like the rest of us and when all this comes to an end they will still pay the price of the financial support put in place for others, but they’ve had nothing themselves. It is heartbreaking.”
There are fears the lack of support could have wider consequences for Britain’s cultural sector.
“I’m really worried that all the great work on diversity, class, regional access, will be collateral damage – the price paid to make sure there’s some form of industry left standing,” Brabin said.
“If you don’t support individuals, where’s the next wave of talent – the next Fleabag, the next Chernobyl – going to come from? Our industry is the least understood, paying the biggest price and will be the last to come back. We need a sectoral deal to support us to return in 2021.”
One production secretary, Sarah-Jane Hawkins, 25, from Belfast, and her seven-year-old daughter, were left to rely on charity, universal credit and her dwindling savings when film and TV projects were cancelled.
Hawkins, who normally works a 60-hour week, said: “Knowing our hard-earned tax money hasn’t been given back to us because we’re taxed at source, compared to how other PAYE workers have been treated, is really, really difficult.
“If we continue to get no help I’ll have to step back from my dream job, leave the industry I love, and find something more stable where I’ll get equal rights. It looks like the only way to survive.”
A Treasury spokesperson said the package of support for workers was “generous and wide-ranging”.
“Freelancers who get more than half their income from self-employment are eligible for the SEISS, and employers can make the decision to furlough freelance employees on PAYE if they meet the eligibility criteria,” the spokesperson said.
“Those who do not qualify will be able to access a range of other support – including income tax deferrals, access to a range of grants and loans, and three-month mortgage holidays. We’ve also relaxed the earnings rules for self-employed claimants under universal credit.”
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