How the COVID-19 pandemic is destroying Britain's creative industries
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every aspect of life across the world. But none are hit as hard, and with such a weak safety net, as those in the creative industries. Melissa Chemam discusses the impact of the crisis on Britain's artists, writers and musicians, and what the public response must be.
Music may be the greatest comfort, but will musicians, and the music industry, survive the year? In the midst of the unprecedented crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a major concern in the United Kingdom is the lack of public support for artists, freelancers and self-employed workers.
According to the Federation of Small Businesses 4.9 million British workers are self-employed, around 15% of the total workforce. These workers urgently need a support plan, one that as yet the government hasn’t offered. For now, their option is no better than to expect the £94 a week statutory sick pay.
“As a freelancer it’s always been, some months busy, some months less busy but overall it works and it’s a full wage as long as you put the hours in. I pay my taxes for a full wage, but suddenly find that 80% of wages are secured for the employed but as self-employed I am left stranded on 90 something pounds a week”, independent photographer Colin Moody told me here in Bristol. “It’s really hard and feels like we are not valued. We are supposed to act as a community right now to save this country, then we need to also support our freelancers, period.”
UNPRECEDENTED CRISIS, HIGH LEVEL OF RISKS
Music venues and festivals are cancelling events one by one. Glastonbury’s 50th anniversary plans have been axed; some estimating losses could be as high as £100 millions. Festival Republic, which puts on Reading and Leeds, Wireless, Download and Latitude, is still not sure if they will be affected, as well as All Points East in London, but the lockdown will obviously have an impact on them.
According to a statement by the Musicians’ Union:
-Musicians have lost more than £14m in earnings so far,
-90% say that their work has been affected,
-Job opportunities are down 69% compared to this time last year.
It’s not only musicians that have been affected, all sectors of the creative industries have been hit. Fifty London theatres, and 250 throughout the UK, have closed according to the Society of London Theatre (Solt) and UK Theatre, the industry body that represents them. Equity, the actors’ union, stated: “no one should be left behind just because their employment is insecure”.
The Hay literature festival, due to run 21-31 May, is cancelled; Edinburgh international film festival, to start on 17 June, won’t go ahead.
The media are as well. Pamela Morton, freelance national organiser of the National Union of Journalists, said members are “seeing work dry up and face suffering real hardship”.
THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE FOR SELF-EMPLOYED IS UNFAIR AND DISHEARTENING
On Friday 20 March, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced measures to help workers affected by COVID-19, like a better access to Universal Credit and reduction in taxes. But self-employed all over the country remain worried.
Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester commented that: “The failure to move on support for people who are self-employed risks undermining public support for the PM’s approach. He needs to correct this ASAP.”
Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire wrote on Twitter: “Without a ban, pubs, theatres, concert halls, clubs etc. – huge part of economy & jobs of my constituency – can’t claim insurance and are at risk.”
Yvette Cooper, Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract, Castleford & Knottingley, wrote: “I’ve heard from desperate childminders, taxi drivers, construction workers, training instructors, beauticians, musicians & more who are facing serious, sudden hardship. Govt must act”.
But on 24 March, Sunak confirmed that people who were having their hours reduced would not get help, that was “not possible under the furlough scheme” he announced last week.
BRITAIN, LIKE THE USA, FAILS, WHERE EUROPE HAS ALREADY REACTED
One measure of the failure of the British government to adequately respond is by comparing these measures with those of our neighbours. In France, President Macron announced the suspension of payments of rents and energy bills. The French government is supporting workers and encouraging people to put their health first. Emmanuel Macron ignored the protests from the “gilets jaunes”, strikers against his pension reform, doctors and teachers; this month he had no choice but to stop his neoliberal reforms in front of this invisible virus.
According to Luke James, press officer for European trade unions, the current coronavirus support for the self-employed is of 80% of average wage over last 3 years in Norway, up to €1,582 per month in Belgium, €1,500 for those who lose over 70% of income in France, €203 per week for six weeks in Ireland, and €600 a month in Italy. In the United Kingdom, they are left with £94 a week…
We face an unprecedented crisis worldwide. The only reasonable response is to do whatever is possible to make this crisis change our economic models for good.
As Naomi Klein wrote in The Intercept, we must avoid another “disaster capitalism” crisis: “During moments of cataclysmic change, the previously unthinkable suddenly becomes reality.
We can look at tools to build up new plans. This crisis — like earlier ones in history — could be a catalyst to shower aid not on the wealthiest interests in society (including the ones most responsible for our current vulnerabilities and the climate emergency), but to the workers. That’s how Roosevelt’s New Deal came about, the welfare state in Europe and here the NHS.
AN APPROPRIATE RESPONSE IS JUST A FEW DECISIONS AWAY
In the UK, the level of independent workers, artists and small businesses contributing to the economy is very high. For now, they live on unions’ initiatives and community support. The Musicians’ Union is launching the a ‘Hardship Fund” of a £1 million “that members with genuine and pressing hardship can apply to” (apply now at http://theMU.org/hardshipfund)
The FSB launched a campaign and said: “Self-employed in the UK, contributing over £275bn to our economy, they need our support now more than ever.” (Details here), and petitions have also been launched (notably, here and here). But what the UK needs right now is serious a national public response.
The Labour Party is asking for more like a comprehensive income protection scheme, European-level statutory sick pay for all workers from day one, increased Universal Credit, rent suspension and a ban on evictions for six months.
The richest companies and multinationals could be taxed more, at least temporarily. As Richard Murphy wrote last week for the Tax Justice Network: “The government can create all the money we need”, via the central bank, the Bank of England. “How does a bank create money? The honest answer is out of thin air. It happens whenever they create a loan. Most people think when they ask a bank for a loan money paid in by one person is paid on to them. That’s not true. Not true at all, in fact.”
Another urgent need might be to simply tackle the dramatic issue of tax avoidance that makes this country's public services unmanageable. Huge amount of money is stored in edge funds and tax havens, of which the largest in the world in the City of London.
This crisis is already doing what decades of campaigning didn’t succeed to do by opening people’s eyes on to the level of iniquity and inequality generated by the present system, and stopping an ever-growing industrial production. Planes are down, Alitalia, British railways and Spanish hospitals have been effectively renationalised.
Finally, universal basic income stands as the strongest response. “Universal Basic Income is an affordable and feasible response to coronavirus,” wrote economist at Balliol College, Oxford University, Daniel Susskind in the Financial Times this Monday. A “powerful case for immediate Universal Basic Income as affordable & feasible response to coronavirus,” Caroline Lucas commented on Twitter. “Handing out £1000 per person per month would cost £66bn a month – a fraction of nearly £500bn bailout during 2008 financial crisis,” Susskind added.
Later on, we will have to reinvent our system of production, not only to face a higher number of pandemic but also because our planet cannot cope with our system ecologically. More than ever we need to look for better solutions, and learn from our general mistakes.
Melissa Chemam is a writer, broadcast journalist and author. She has been based in the USA, France, the UK and East Africa for the BBC World Service, Reuters, CBC, DW, etc. She spent most of her carrier as a freelance reporter or on short-term contracts. She was also the main researcher for Award-winning director Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx, released in 2019 (https://www.bl.uk/events/karl-marx-imagined-and-the-young-karl-marx-screening), and a speaker at the political festival Bristol Transformed in 2019 and 2020.