Third report in a series of surveys from Freelancers Make Theatre Work examines the ongoing impact of COVID and intersectional inequalities

A new report released today by Freelancers Make Theatre Work (FMTW) highlights key issues facing the freelance theatre workforce. Conducted in March-April 2023, this year’s survey highlights a pay-gap between the male and female workforce of 37.4%, and reports of an industry rife with ageism and sexism are further corroborated by data which reveals that the pay-gap widens to 47.7% for freelancers with 21-30 years’ experience in the industry. Third in a series of surveys by FMTW, the 2023 findings indicated that overall, average earnings for freelancers in the industry are 17.5% below the UK national average salary, and that many are leaving – or being forced out of – the industry resulting in skills shortages across the sector.

At the height of the COVID pandemic, Freelancers Make Theatre Work, conducted a survey of the UK’s freelance theatre workforce entitled The Big Freelancer Survey (BFS) 2020. Planning to conduct five annual surveys from 2020 to 2025, FMTW, in collaboration with the University of Essex, aims to capture a detailed picture of the ongoing impact of COVID, and to understand how the pandemic intersects with other issues such as Brexit, pre-existing precarity and intersectional inequalities, the climate crisis, and the growing cost of living in the UK. Designed to provide evidence-based insight, this third Big Freelancer Survey examines the effects of the pandemic over time and explores longer-term issues such as chronic insecurity and precarity.

Paul Carey Jones, Data and Communications Manager from Freelancers Make Theatre Work said, “The 2023 Big Freelancer Survey survey paints a stark picture of a freelance workforce ‘under siege’, facing the perfect storm of a cost-of-living crisis, and the ongoing impact of Covid and Brexit; combined with deeply embedded structural inequalities. The clear message from this year’s survey is that the freelance theatre workforce feels ‘undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated’, a feeling that has been amplified by significant funding cuts in the last year. Although many find the work fulfilling, unsustainably low pay is leading to skills shortages across the arts industry, coupled with the devastating impact of the fallout from Brexit. The industry needs to take a long hard look at itself and call upon the government to assist in a much-needed shake up.”

The report highlights:

  • A striking imbalance between the income of male and female theatre freelancers, alongside the fact that more male respondents earned 100% of their income from freelance work;
  • Financial uncertainty and underpayment across all career stages, regions, and sectors – resulting in a chronic scenario in which many freelancers are living hand-to-mouth due to the constant expectation to work for below minimum wage or for free;
  • Work intensification (doing more work for the same, or less pay), and work extension (being required to take on more roles and/or responsibilities for the same, or less pay) with 64.6% of respondents doing more work for the same or less pay in the last year. The situation has worsened since Covid, due to high numbers of freelancers leaving the industry, leading to the hiring of low-paid, inexperienced freelancers;
  • A skills shortage among producers, stage mangers and those in technical roles is having an impact on workplace fairness, safety, and workloads;
  • The ongoing effects of the pandemic and the overwork-underpayment bind have contributed to a sense that lessons learned during the pandemic have been abandoned, and that the last few years have been a missed opportunity for industry reform;
  • Concerns about persistent exclusivity, inequality and inaccessibility, with many participants feeling discouraged about working in an industry in which inclusivity is believed to be ‘just a word and not reality’, with a lack of meaningful progression in terms of equality;
  • Nearly 80% of respondents believe that Brexit has been a source of uncertainty for their work in the industry, with those working in opera, classical music and live events being hit particularly hard – difficulties in obtaining visas are causing employers to discriminate against those without EU passports, and there is also evidence that UK makers and suppliers are losing contracts to their EU counterparts due to high import costs and slow delivery times

Key recommendations and actions in the report include a call for a thorough review of government funding policy; the introduction and enforcement of fair rates of pay that tackle the disparity between freelance wages and salaried staff in organisations; a drive to tackle London-centrism in funding policy and provision and an increase in the touring allowance to match inflation; the introduction of a general EU/UK work passport or permit to allow short term and short notice work; and improved accessibility for under-represented groups across the industry and the elimination of pay gaps.

Written by Theatrefullstop