Last Wednesday a historic mass meeting of freelancers took place online as freelance writers, photographers, illustrators and other media workers came together, beaming in from around the country. With over 120 people in attendance, it was the biggest meeting of any kind MEAA has had since the start of the pandemic and the biggest meeting of freelancers the union has ever had. Members voted overwhelmingly to endorse the new Freelance Charter of Rights.
The meeting was exciting for me because I’ve been working behind the scenes on the National Freelance Committee since 2018, and for years before that with the small-scale activism of @paythewriters. For most of those years it’s been difficult to imagine anything like that meeting happening. Freelancers are isolated, we move from gig to gig; we are notoriously hard to organise. We don’t have legal collective bargaining power like employees do. That’s contributed to an erosion of freelancer pay and conditions over the years, exacerbated by digitisation, precarity, and competition for work.
Alongside a need for fair payment, payment on time, and kill fees for commissioned work, there is confusion around our right to charge superannuation and the status of our copyright. Without a contract, we retain copyright by default, but we often see our work syndicated across platforms without seeing a cent, sometimes stripped of a byline in violation of our moral rights. Even raising awareness about these issues is tricky, with a lack of transparency around rates, a huge gap between recommended and actual rates, and a fair bit of shame—we’re supposed to be lofty and creative thinkers, not harp on about the money.
Recent research by MEAA showed just how widespread the problems are. Average freelancer incomes are well below half the median wage. Even career journalists with years of experience writing for major outlets are regularly facing exploitation. At the meeting, this evidence was backed up with stories from participants struggling to make a living, spending many hours chasing up late payment, worrying about whether they can ask for a better rate. Some are still working for nothing at all.
Job cuts at major outlets have seen more and more media organisations rely on freelance labour, but unlike in-house staff, freelancers get no sick pay, no annual leave, little superannuation and zero job security. We pay for our own workspace and equipment, and are often not covered by indemnity. These additional costs are not reflected in our rates of pay.
Our reliance on having good relationships with editors makes it hard to ask for more; even superannuation is considered ‘extra’. We value our independence, but it can make us isolated and vulnerable to exploitation. The difficulties of freelancing have long been compounded by that isolation, as the challenges of organising mean that we have been unable to improve our situation collectively. Last week’s meeting was a huge step towards changing that.
Australian freelancers are not alone in getting organised. In New York State, legislation has just been introduced by the Democrats after long effort by the National Writers Union’s freelancer campaign. This legislation, dubbed the ‘Freelance Isn’t Free Act,’ would protect freelance writers from exploitative practices, including outlawing late payment and giving them the right to sue delinquent employers. It’s an extraordinary step, but in keeping with the NWU’s efforts—in the years since a similar law was passed by New York City, they have helped writers to recoup US$1.8 million in unpaid fees.
Without the support of a major party, a legislative path like that would be long and arduous here. The Freelance Charter is a different tactic, a way for the union to work with publications on our behalf to set basic standards and rates of pay. We will still be relying on the goodwill of our editors, but we know that we have a case: they rely on us, too, and they know the value in our work better than anyone. There are already campaigns underway at several major media outlets.
Last I checked, over 200 freelancers have endorsed the charter. The more people that stand with us, the better our chances of success. While the Freelance Charter is focused on mainstream journalism, the model has applications across the arts. In my industry, literature, precarious, project-based and contract work are rife. As sole traders without the protections of employment, creative writers are often much worse off than journalists. Arts journalism, where some of us make our survival-money, is one of the worst environments in which to be a freelance writer, with few outlets paying fairly, and some not at all. Many writers have pointed out that the flow-on effects of this on our critical culture are concerning.
With most literary publications reliant on public funding that has been slowly whittled away, there is an awareness that calling for increasing rates means calling for an increase in public funding for the arts. It’s not a simple problem to solve, and it may need stronger tools than we now have to make the much-needed structural changes.
But I’m encouraged by the support for the Charter partly because I’m seeing increasing solidarity among freelancers across professions. Precarious work is becoming the norm in many industries, with increased casualisation and contract-based work. We don’t all want secure 9-5 jobs, but if we don’t push back against precarity and exploitation we will lose the conditions fought for and won by those that came before us.
In some ways the pandemic has helped us to get organised. We’re more used to meeting online, co-ordinating our discussions in group chats. We’ve also seen the material conditions of our work more clearly. Many people found the switch to working from home during lockdown incredibly challenging, a long way from their pyjama-clad fantasies. It was fascinating to watch others temporarily discover some of the difficulties we face: isolation, lack of infrastructure, all the additional time and resources that go in to making space to write. After fifteen years as a full-time writer, it was a relief to see a little more awareness of the realities of freelancing trickle through. It matters that we don’t lose sight of the material conditions of each other’s working lives, and that we keep fighting to improve them.
Jennifer Mills is an author, editor and critic based on Kaurna Yerta (Adelaide). Her latest novel is The Airways, published by Picador in 2021. Dyschronia (2018) was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Aurealis, and Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
In 2022, Mills is Artist in Residence at Vitalstatistix.