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“Serious flaws” in government support of creatives and self-employed, new research finds

Current government employment status frameworks do not respond to the needs of those working in the arts and the self-employed – a study has shown.

In the first of its kind, the study focusses on the impact of the Universal Credit system and the Minimum Income Floor (MIF) in relation to self-employed workers, many of whom work in the creative industries.

The research published by the University of Warwick and performing arts and entertainment trade union, Equity, has discovered serious flaws within current social security systems, which is leading to workers across creative industries falling into financial difficulties.

This means increasing numbers of highly skilled creatives are forced to choose between their home and their profession.

The arts industry relies heavily on a freelance workforce who can provide flexibility and work tends to be on short-term contracts. The vast majority are not employed within a full-time employment capacity.

Under current government guidelines, workers are tested to see whether they are ‘gainfully self-employed’. Following this, the current Universal Credit MIF rule assumes they have earnings set at 35 hours of minimum wage. As a result of this, universal credit benefits are reduced or stopped all together.

The research includes new data from a survey of 674 Equity members, alongside six focused interviews to analyse the experiences of social security of those working within the arts.

The findings show that the average earning of art workers before tax is £15,270 per year, with 82% of respondents reporting that the Universal Credit system has not supported them in finding work in the industry.

One participant commented that: “I no longer have my own accommodation…I live out of my car” with another adding that “it’s soul crushing. Sometimes I can’t afford to eat.”

The data highlights that of those in the industry that have had to rely on the universal credit system and MIF, 46% have been unable to pay bills and 5% have had to leave their homes.

Dr Heidi Ashton, Associate Professor in Cultural and Creative Ecologies at the University of Warwick, said: “This research has been vital to carry out. We have found that the current welfare system is not fit for purpose for people considered to be self-employed.

“The nature of the creative industries is that work is intermittent, which means that the self-employed workforce can go for long periods of time working in jobs that can fit around auditions, training and working to get work. It’s during these periods that the workforce is in roles that do not pay enough. The concern is that when this occurs, the government’s current Universal Credit and MIF system cannot support this highly skilled workforce.

“The research we conducted finds serious concerns in the system, that is impacting more than just the creative industries, but all those that fall victim to the MIF. It gives grounds to the government rhetoric around creative workers, suggesting they are not worthy of support. However, the report highlights the value of the creative industries and the hard work and contributions this workforce makes.”

Commenting on the research, Equity’s General Secretary, Paul W Fleming added: “The experiences that Equity members shared with us for this ground-breaking research were appalling. Experiences of financial hardship and debt, stress and anxiety, and the impossibility of navigating the very system of social security that we are all supposed to be able to rely on in times of need.

“We all pay into the system when times are good, so that we can receive support when needed. This is a fundamental principle of any decent society, and one that Equity will not abandon.

“Equity cannot stand by whilst artists are treated as second-class citizens by the social security system. For all artists, and all workers, we must fight to win a decent safety net.”

The study has produced two policy recommendations in relation to the issues raised. These include:

1) Abolish the MIF during Universal Credit claims.

2) Initiate a full, evidence-based review of the effectiveness of the social security system in supporting atypical workers with multiple jobs and careers in non-standard work environments and sectors.

The full research can be found hereLink opens in a new window.