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Dr Heidi Ashton on why sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment is so pervasive in the cultural and creative industries.

From the #MeToo movement to ongoing cases of bullying and harassment at all levels of the industry, harmful behaviours perpetrated by people in positions of power are proving stubbornly difficult to deal with across the creative sector.

Unions, advocacy groups, employers’ associations and individual organisations have all tried to tackle these issues and yet they persist. Why?

The problem here is twofold. Firstly, the power differential between perpetrators and victims and secondly the organisation of work in the sector more broadly.

The first is the most obvious. People in positions of power are often not held to account as they should be because they are seen to be difficult to replace. This may be because of their position in the sector (Harvey Weinstein for example), their contractual position, their popularity and therefore revenue potential, or a combination of these.

Often, they are also responsible for, or have influence over, hiring decisions which puts them in a significant position of power over their victims.

This isn’t just high-profile individuals but includes directors, conductors, musical directors, choreographers, and other creative leaders. For example in 2022 the film and TV charity found that nearly half of the creative workforce (46%) had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination, similarly a survey by Freelancers Make Theatre Work found the figure to be just over half (53%).

The second related issue is the way that work is organised in the sector. It relies upon a legion of freelancers who provide a skilled, flexible workforce that the industry uses as it shifts from one project to another.

Every new production involves a different set of freelance workers, so freelancers work from job to job on numerous, short-term contract with different production companies.

The legislation that protects workers assumes a standard employment relationship which is a direct and long-term relationship between the worker and the employer. In this case workers who feel threatened or intimidated encounter harmful behaviours can report these behaviours to their human resources department and are protected by law.

This is not the case in the cultural and creative sector in which there may be multiple sub-contractors, agents and other freelancers involved in the process of hiring and the day to day running of the production.

These complex sets of relationships mean that freelance workers at the bottom of the ladder may be employed by an organisation with which they have little or no connection. They are often hired by agents and other freelance workers (directors, choreographers, musical directors etc) who are themselves contracted by the production company and can make hiring decisions on their behalf.

These individuals are influential in the freelance workers’ future opportunities, and the workers are so far removed from the main contractor and protective legislation that they do not feel able to tell anyone.

They are fully aware that they are unlikely to be listened to or believed. Recent research found that these freelance workers were often in fear of their job and told explicitly that if they did not like the behaviours of those above them, they had the option to leave the project. This is how the ‘power’ of perpetrators becomes so pernicious and pervasive.

This creates a problem in which the victim must take all the ‘risk’ of calling out poor behaviours and their livelihood is at stake. As perpetrators move from job to job and often have control or influence over who is hired in future their behaviours can go unchecked and they are not held accountable.

These behaviours may not be intentionally harmful initially but for some the lack of consequences provides opportunity and normalisation. This can lead to an emboldened sense of power with repeated and / or escalation of behaviours.

As the victims may differ from job to job there are few, if any, formal records of the behaviour. The code of silence and whispered acknowledgements of known victims have little impact, and the freelancers remain vulnerable and unprotected.

These non-standard working relationships are not exclusive to the cultural and creative sectors though. It is becoming more common as organisations seek to cut costs, devolve aspects of the production process, and reduce financial risk.

This has led to an increasing fragmentation of labour markets (Taylor Review). Parliament is another example of this atypical work with people in power having responsibility for hiring and no overarching organisation to hold people to account.

Not all of those in positions of power behave in this way most care deeply about the people that they work with, but for those subjected to their behaviour the consequences can be extremely damaging and lasting.

The Earl of Clancarty and others in parliament have been calling for a freelance commissioner, this would give freelance workers a voice in any solutions and representation at the very top of our legislature. As the organisation of work continues to change, we need to find better ways to protect freelance workers. There are no quick fixes and any solutions such as regulations or ombudsmen need to be created collaboratively with employers, unions, and advocacy groups.