Type
Article
Category
Writing

Precarious words

Eight years ago, I wrote a short piece for Overland called ‘Pay the Writers’. I was fed up with being asked to work for ‘exposure’. It was a time when a lot of writing work was moving online, and this work was often unpaid. Writers were at risk of losing our incomes entirely. If anything needed some exposure, it was the working conditions of freelancers.

I hoped to help others be brave and call out bad practices. I hadn’t realised how much underpayment and exploitation were an industry standard. The piece hit a nerve, and I felt encouraged to pursue the issue further.

Over the last decade, the discourse has shifted. I’m not taking credit for this—a lot of writers have been working hard to make these problems visible. There are a thousand memes about payment in exposure. Young people are refusing unpaid internships. The Australia Council even has a protocol for paying writers. We’re better at talking about this stuff now.

But while our language is changing, the industry itself is moving slowly. Most of us know that the recommended rates are rarely paid. 95c-$1 a word is great when it happens, but we regularly work for much less. The MEAA charge-out sheet states that it ‘does not seek to represent actual market conditions.’ The ASA bases its rates on MEAA’s, and admits: ‘Freelance rates of pay vary considerably … It is recommended that you negotiate.’ The problem is not just that good rates are rare. The problem is that there is no floor. With no minimum, freelancer rates will remain in a race to the bottom.

*

MEAA has just concluded a major survey of freelancer incomes. The survey largely attracted union members and those working as traditional journalists. Most had been freelancing for more than twenty years. These are mid-career, established writers who freelance full time, and their incomes are extraordinarily low.

A third of respondents earn less than $10,000 a year. Nearly two thirds earn $39,999 or less. Most freelancers said that low pay was a frequent or constant challenge. Shockingly, 40 per cent are still being asked to work for free. The vast majority identified enforcing minimum rates as the most pressing issue they faced. MEAA’s full survey report will be released next month, and it should be a call to action.

We already know that most Australian writers live firmly below the poverty line. The 2015 Macquarie University study, which found that authors’ incomes average $12,900, is widely quoted in dismay. An ASA survey from 2020, submitted to the recent parliamentary inquiry into arts and culture, found that 53.6 per cent of full time writers earn less than $15,000 from their work. Meanwhile, Australia Council funding for literature has fallen 44 per cent since 2013. Yes, there’s a protocol for paying writers. But funding’s not conditional on following it. As Lauren Carroll Harris recently pointed out, we’ve accepted a culture of inequity between salaried and gig workers. It sometimes feels like the only people getting paid in the arts are the managers.

*

I’ve written five books now. That makes me an established, mid-career writer, and a pretty successful one. But that success doesn’t translate financially. Wages are stagnant in this country, but even so, I’m watching as my peers in salaried jobs see their expertise reflected in their incomes as their position changes. I’m also watching my artist mates go back to their day jobs, and it breaks my heart.

One of my many gigs is as a mentor. I love taking part in the skills transfer essential to any craft. I don’t like telling my mentees this, but I’ve realised that there’s not going to be a point in my career when I’ll feel a sense of financial security. I’ve stopped waiting for it to happen. Instead, I tell them to get used to fighting for their rights, and join their union.

I’m what you might call lucky. I’ve had a few grants, and I get to do what I love full time. In the attention economy, there’s an expectation of gratitude for that. Early in my career, a brilliant writer told me that we don’t have to be grateful, because we’re the people doing the work. Now I tell others the same thing.

When I worry about the future, I often think of Frank Moorhouse’s 2017 essay in Meanjin, in which this highly awarded, widely celebrated, late-career white man writes that ‘after 50 years of writing, I am going broke again.’ I don’t think I’ll get to retire. And as I get older, issues like sick leave and carer’s leave are more present in my life. In this way, even when the money improves, the precarity worsens.

The pandemic has made this precarity stark. It wasn’t just cancelled gigs and lost income. It wasn’t other people suddenly noticing what job insecurity felt like, or how tough it was to juggle everything it takes to work from home. It was the Australian border slamming in my face. The simple cost of getting home was a financial shock from which it will take many months to recover.

For some people, this period has been an opportunity to reassess their work/life balance, look at their priorities. For the rest of us, it’s shown us where we stand when the bottom falls out of our livelihoods. How much class and inheritance matters when the other stuff breaks.

Pandemic payments like JobKeeper were more advantageous for salaried employees and businesses than they were for those of us in precarious and gig work, many of whom were left to access Centrelink—only to (re)discover that the gutting of the welfare state over the last twenty-five years has been very effective. Many artists and writers have traditionally supplemented their incomes with casual teaching, but tertiary education has also been decimated by this government’s frankly hostile approach. Add inflated housing costs and a high cost of living, then observe again how grants are thinning. Our rates of pay aren’t just unsustainable. They are unsurvivable.

All of this is creating a class barrier to participation in literature, art, journalism and media that impoverishes everyone.

*

A few years ago I joined the National Freelance Committee at MEAA. We’re slowly building out from words and into action. Part of this work is still about consciousness raising. Many writers still don’t realise they are entitled to superannuation, to charge a fee for late payment of invoices, or even to negotiate at all. There are more complicated issues as well: copyright protections, libel insurance, the fact that our work can be syndicated without permission. Contracts that make this clear are rare, so half the time we don’t know what to expect, a lack of transparency that MEAA’s relaunched rate tracker is trying to address.

Raising consciousness and drawing attention to these issues is important. But when we still have to negotiate each invoice alone, it’s difficult to turn individual empowerment into real-world changes. There’s a difference between knowing your rights and being able to demand them.

Ok, so here’s the good news.

With the Freelance Committee, MEAA has been developing a national charter that sets out basic conditions for freelancers working in media and the arts. As well as minimum rates, this charter covers superannuation, payment on time, kill fees, and other rights. The charter seeks to prevent the kind of underpayment that is currently rife, but it’s important to note that minimums won’t replace recommended rates as an industry standard. Rather, they will set a solid floor. It’s a blueprint for fair practice in our industries, for freelance writers, photographers, illustrators, editors, and more.

The freelance charter will be put to a vote of MEAA members early in the new year.

Freelancers are organising, but we know we won’t get far on our own. We are going to need the support of our colleagues: editors, staff writers, and other salaried workers.

The 2019 union win at Crikey demonstrated that staff writers and freelancers could work together to take action on rates. This win set a precedent for collective negotiations in other media organisations. Now in-house journalists, editors, and freelancers at The Guardian are working together to demand their worth, staff standing in solidarity with freelancers’ demands for fair pay, and vice versa.

Clearly, when we work together, something shifts. Freelancers need to show our solidarity too: to see ourselves in the struggles of precarious workers in other industries, and show up for them. This year we’ve seen authors stand up and vocalise support for the booksellers at Newtown’s Better Read than Dead, who are still struggling for fair pay and job security.

These are tough times in the arts and media. But the companies that survive them cannot be allowed to do so on the back of unpaid or underpaid labour.

The new Freelance Charter will present an opportunity for progressive media companies, arts organisations and literary spaces to show us where they stand. By accepting these basic standards, they will finally be able to demonstrate to their freelance contributors—and more importantly, to their readers—that they value the people that are doing the work.

 

Image: A detail from the cover of the Italian edition of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude
 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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Comments

  1. Thank you Jennifer Mills. Tonight ABC TV premiered a series called Books That Made Me, allegedly in recognition of the contribution that Australian writers have made to Australian culture. Not one of the writers interviewed were paid for their time. Every other person who worked on this 4 part series was paid. What does this say about how we value writers?

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