Industries which respect freelance workers in this hour of crisis are likely to find favour after the lockdown
By Gokul Krishnamoorthy
Findings of a poll screamed at me. A report in The Economic Times said that domestic payments for freelancers had been delayed from 19 days earlier to 24, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was not just about advertising workers but a whole lot of people from across industries on Refrens, an invoicing and payments system for freelancers. The truth in many industries is a lot harsher than that statistic for March 2020.
A short film titled ‘The Family’ starring everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Mammooty to Rajinikanth is doing the online rounds with good reason. It’s job, besides asking people to stay at home, is to raise funds for daily wage earners in film and television. We know it’s a sector where they are aplenty. We also know it’s a sector that cannot function without that talent.
PRWeek UK reported that half of the freelancers in communications (public relations) it surveyed wanted to give up being self-employed.
Elsewhere, in the UK, a ‘Forgotten Freelancers’ film is telling the plight of the self-employed in the media and entertainment world who are not eligible for benefits of the government’s financial aid.
That these workers are finding help (in India) and able to raise their voice (in the UK) is comforting. But there are many more who will not even get noticed.
Say You Care
Many of the much-celebrated gig economy workers are not in the organised space where systems exist to ensure they are paid within a given timeframe. Even those in the organised sectors, like say Ola and Uber drivers, who are out of work are being supported – at least efforts are being made by the cab aggregators to support them. I wonder how moratoriums (with interest) will impact them, if they remain out of work for long with loans to repay on their vehicles. But there is an opportunity and need for the aggregators to tell them they care, and to keep them together. When we come out of the lockdown, the drivers and aggregators will need each other just as much.
Specific to the creative industries, the freelancers existed before ‘gig’ economy became a thing and will continue to. If one looks at agencies, especially the smaller shops, many never could command terms of payment with clients. What hope do they have now? For a client looking to motivate his or her agency partner, the lockdown presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The impact of the lockdown will be felt by everyone. Corporate houses that own brands are equally affected and they too have to pay salaries, besides vendors and others. Among their vendors would come agencies, who in turn need to pay their own talent and others they hire. It is the freelance worker or vendor who will be the first casualty, and that is understandable.
In response to a question on the subject of the lockdown, I received a few experiences from small shops (owner-driven, with small teams) and those who label themselves as self-employed / freelancers.
A video content company was told in mid-March that its client would not be able to continue with a retainer contract. A group of individuals churning out creatives as a team for a realty firm, among others, has been told to put all activities on hold. A writer laments that she is awaiting payments overdue by six months and has lost hope of receiving anything in the lockdown. A mom and pop creative shop is hoping it can keep its flock of employees and other contributors paid and motivated for when the lockdown ends and client work kicks in.
There are other, positive stories too. A freelancer is grateful for agency folks calling him to make sure he was doing alright and ensuring his payment was made ahead of time. Writers testify to publications going out of their way to ensure no contributor has to bear the brunt of the slowdown. An agency head says a client, who he least expected to, called to ask how things were and if there was anything they could do, to help.
Work has dried up but hope and humanity hasn’t.
Not All Will Survive
Much like any other industry, those that respect ‘gig’ workers in this hour of crisis are likely to find favour after the lockdown. This is an opportunity for those who can to lock down the talent they need in the longer term and treat them right. This is even more true in the case of non-full time employees, who are generally never in the purview of HR exercises or audits.
Let us consider, what if the value of this segment is critical to one’s business after we exit the lockdown and limp towards normalcy, as it is likely to be in the case of creative industries? There is a feeling that this lockdown has also brought with it a sense of comfort with remote working and freelance talent. In any case, the journey back from the slowdown will see an emphasis on optimising talent cost.
The truth is, not all of this vulnerable ‘gig’ ilk will survive this phase to be able to continue doing what they do. Whether we like it or not, there are similarities to migrant daily wage workers in other sectors. And the images of migrants unsure about their future embarking on a long walk home are not going to fade from public memory in a hurry.
If a society is unable to protect its most vulnerable, it does not deserve to survive a pandemic. If an industry is unable to protect its most vulnerable now, the ramifications are many.
(The author is an independent content consultant and founding editor of Stimulus Unplugged. Views are personal.)