Freelance journalist Claire Sawers spoke about her experiences as a freelancer at the recent Stronger Voice for Women in the Media event in Glasgow last month. Advantages include getting to choose your colleagues and avoiding the moaners! Here is what she said.
We’re all working in conditions where it’s now more and more common to have a zero hours contract, to work precariously, in the unstable gig culture, with no guarantees, no safety net of a pension, sick pay, benefits or HR support.
Many of us will be conscious that budgets in our different sectors are shrinking, teams and roles are being reshuffled and employers are constantly reorganising themselves to meet changing demands.
I’m a self-employed writer. I workon a freelance basis as an arts journalist, writing features, interviews and reviews for magazines, newspapers and websites. I also pay the bills with copywriting, proofreading and editing work.
I really enjoy my job, most of the time. I get to listen to a lot of music that I love, I get to speak to artists and authors — sometimes that might be sending messages over Whatsapp to a township in South Africa or Skyping with somebody in a kitchen in Berlin or a bedroom in Manchester — and I like hearing about interesting new art or zines, or club nights or DIY projects. It’s low income work on the whole though, often way below minimum wage, and there are definite pitfalls that I’m constantly trying to avoid falling into.
Just to give some background, I started out as a freelancer, and did that for the first five years, writing mostly for newspapers. At first I supplemented my income with waitressing and childcare work before I was making enough money to pay rent and bills just from writing. When I first noticed budgets being cut around 2007 and 2008, and freelance writers were being used less, in favour of in-house writers, I started getting slightly worried. I was lucky enough to find a job as a staff member on an arts magazine, where I worked for another 5 years. I moved up from assistant editor, to deputy editor and acting editor — a job I enjoyed with lots of variety and fun people, but it also meant working very long hours under a lot of pressure — before being made redundant in 2014 and going back to freelance work.
Luckily when I heard I was being made redundant I was a member of a trade union — a thing that many people will smugly tell you is dying out. (And a trade union for journalists! Doubling up on the dying arts!) But even with trade unions under threat as they are just now — particularly as Tories do their best to shift powers away from workers and back towards government and employers — a trade union is all the more vital in this climate of precarious work. Having a trade union in your corner means you can get support and legal advice when you need it. And if the employer is willing to recognise the union and have a back and forth chat with them (never a guarantee) — they can raise awareness of changes to employment law and discuss fair pay and healthy working conditions.
I found the redundancy process pretty stressful, and was pretty clueless about what to expect. If I hadn’t had support from the NUJ there were points where I may have buckled and signed the paperwork too early or not spotted details that weren’t up to date with employment laws. Luckily Dominic Bascombe and Paul Holleran were both amazing. They gave me guidance, helped secure a fee for me, and made the transition into freelance work as smooth as possible.
Having tried both self-employed freelance work and salaried work for just one employer, I can say that I found pros and cons in both types of work. To be honest, in the world of journalism (like many other creative industries), I don’t really know any other way of working that’s not precarious — even in a salaried full-time post, workers are usually aware that budgets are tight, jobs are under threat, and publications are constantly on their toes to meet the changing demands of readers and advertisers, online and in print.
As a staffer for example, I remember the first time the long Easter weekend came along. Praise all the gods! That was a total novelty — being paid to do nothing, and have two guilt-free days off when the whole office closed. As freelancers know, bank holidays often aren’t something you really register. When you’re self-employed, you often have a nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten to do something, or guilt that you could be doing more.
Besides the amazing paid holidays, another huge advantage of contracted work is sick pay – it’s no joke if you’re freelancing, and you have to take time out for doctor’s appointments and hospital visits, either for yourself or someone you’re caring for, knowing that it’s all eating into the time when you need to be making money. If you happen to have a long-term illness or something that needs regular treatment, freelancing can make things very tough, or actually impossible, from a financial point of view.
As a freelancer, workload can vary a lot from month to month, making forward planning difficult and things like paying rent or getting a mortgage often impossible. Payment dates can vary a lot from one employer to the next, and if the cheque gets lost in the post, you can’t just ring the person in accounts, it’s you that has to do the chasing. Some months are good, but I’ve found myself more than a few times waiting on various payments to come through, and getting the text from the bank that says I’m about to go over my agreed overdraft if I don’t pay funds in before 3pm, so I have to grab my bike, withdraw cash from my credit card and stick it in my account to avoid charges.
There are also the employment rights that should come with salaried positions. HR support and access to a trade union may be some of the benefits, but it really does depend on the employer. And whether they even recognise the union. Across all sectors, there are employers — or colleagues — who still make employees feel like they’re causing trouble if they want to talk about collective bargaining, fair pay or healthy working conditions and staff wellbeing.
Being in non-precarious work has its undeniable big advantages and peace of mind, but it isn’t necessarily all a barrel of laughs – politics within a company can become difficult, particularly if a business is under financial strain, or being run in a way that puts undue stress on its workers. Bad vibes spread fast (we’ve all been cornered by the kettle by someone needing a moanfest) and for the many people working in a climate of redundancies and job losses, the atmosphere can quickly feel pretty heavy.
So as someone in precarious work, I try to make it work for me. If I don’t ‘own’ the precarity a bit, it’d just feel too grim. One of the things I like about freelance life is getting to choose my colleagues. Most of my work is solitary, but I make a point of meeting up with other writers, as well as friends who are self-employed and working in a mix of different jobs. On busy weeks I don’t always have time, but I really try to make the time. Social media can be a big help for finding out about stuff and staying in touch too – but personally I find it really needs topped up with seeing people IRL. It’s easy to forget how working in a team can provide support – yes there may be colleagues that you’d rather avoid, or some kind of complex biscuit buying rota you struggle to keep up with, but it’s also a way of getting advice and sharing resources, discussing who’s paying what etc. For agency workers, artists working from home, zero hours workers checking their phone for texts about shifts – having no technical support, no financial advice, sometimes even just having no place to moan, can feel very isolating and stressful.
I’m lucky to work for and with some sound people now too – for example I do one day a week for a music charity and my boss decided that instead of taking us to the pub once a month, she’d organise a yoga class in her living room instead. Another friend who I do “skill swaps” with, taught me how to do some digital stuff that I was toiling with, in exchange for some free proofreading, and squared me up for the rest with cocktails. In other words there are certain ways to make the precarity feel less overwhelming and anxiety inducing. Being in a union helps me massively, and making sure I’ve got a good network of friends who I can talk about work with is really important for me – it keeps me sane. (If not rich.)