As the unprecedented Corona crisis hits, Australian freelancers are struggling to keep their jobs.
In Australia, freelancers occupy 10% of the job market, providing highly skilled, independent labour for the Australian workforce. Unlike traditional job roles, freelancing works on a project to project basis, offering virtually no job security. Without paid leave, consistent wages, and long-term contracts, there is no cash guarantee until you’ve been paid in your pocket. This may seem stressful to some, but the highly evolving industry has seen a boom in the Australian job market. With flexible hours, increased job satisfaction, long term professional growth, freelance has become one of the fastest growing global vocations. As from 2019, freelance makes up nearly a quarter of all professional services in the Australian job market.
Now however, our social and economic landscape is on the precipice of collapse. Since the surge of the COVID-19 death toll, world governments have implemented drastic measures to contain the virus. Europe has closed its borders, people are in lockdown, and businesses have closed their doors. International travel and work have almost completely ceased, seeing the global economy take a terrifying $9 trillion dollar crash. We have not seen a global disruption this monumental since World War II.
As the crisis creeps into Australia, the government is acting slowly. In hopes to prevent total economic disaster, it has hesitated on total lockdown, feeding out measures as the situation unfolds. However, crisis protocol is already affecting Australian businesses, as business restrictions and social distancing are causing cut downs on all unnecessary costs. This affects much of the artistic and creative freelance sector, as their work is often considered as non-essential.
The government is hoping to curb some of these damaging economic effects by rolling out a stimulus package, but hopefully more will be done to patch the cracks.
Today we speak to three Sydney-based freelancers who have been affected by the COVID-19 market crash, to see what they have to say about this frantic situation.
Ruby Laxton – Graphic Designer and Sign Writer
Thanks for being here with me today! I think we should start with you telling me a bit about what you do?
Yeah, so I guess I was getting into lettering and drawing at home, and working bars. I would just do the blackboards in the pub for fun, until someone came down and asked me if I would like to do a blackboard for their event, and it just spiralled from there. I started doing blackboards for work and money on the side, as a little side hustle, and it just started getting busier.
I went to study graphic design from that, I went to TAFE to study sign writing. I started doing more diverse jobs, like painting, murals, signage, and hand painted signs. Now I’m in my third year of studies at UTS graphic design, which I love so much.
Cool! So it started as something small, when did it start to pick up?
Yeah, so probably after TAFE. I met other sign writers, and that completely opened up my world. I learnt so many new skills from talking to other people. ‘Cos before that, I was kind of doing it on my own, and trying to figure it out on my own. You can’t really google that stuff, so I was just figuring it out on my own. But after TAFE, I met some other really good sign writers from Sydney, from the night course there, and from that I learnt so much more. I knew how to do so many more diverse jobs, and through studying, I just got better and better.
Oh I see, and so when was the move to freelance?
As like a main job?
Maybe like a year ago? I was still working in bars, until about 8 months ago, just on the weekend to make ends meet while I was at uni. But then I started getting enough jobs, so i was like f***it, I don’t actually need my pub job. So I made the leap 8 months ago.
Yeah, it’s been great, to be able to focus on one thing.
Wow cool. So you’ve been building up to it for the last three years? What were some of your main concerns about moving to freelance?
Yeah, just stability. I ended up getting a buffer of savings, so then I could. Freelance work you don’t get paid, like, it’s not as stable as other work. It just got the point where I was getting enough regular jobs so I could make it work.
So there was anxiety around stability of work? What’s happening now with the virus? Did you think it would affect you?
There was no way I thought something like this could happen. Work always goes up and down, it fluctuates naturally, but there was no way, I would think ‘what would I do if a pandemic would happen?’ Ahahaha.
Yeah totally, haha
Yeah there is no way! I think when I first heard about the virus, I think we all didn’t really take it too seriously, because the news doesn’t often hit home. For me ‘cos I come from a privileged space, it only clicked a week ago. Like this actually might affect me, ‘cos everything was business as usual till one week ago. Then everything happened so fast.
Did you set up any precautions when you heard about the virus? Especially because freelance work is, as you said, unstable?
It was just so unforeseen! Well, I guess you have to organise everything on your own. It’s your own responsibility to have a buffer there if something does go wrong. You don’t get sick leave, you don’t get the benefits from full time work. It’s your responsibility to organise and put all those things in place. And because I just started freelancing, I’m still learning how to do all of that.
Yeah totally, I bet that’s hard. Tell me about what’s going on now? When did you start to notice the change?
I was still starting to get jobs pretty frequently, maybe for the past month. Then it was literally last week I’d say, then suddenly everyone started cancelling on me. Most of my clients were hospitality venues. I had a couple of really big menu board jobs coming up, but those pubs are gonna close. They said ‘we can’t, we don’t need you anymore.”
I was gonna paint a big mural for Microsoft, for an event space, but they’ve had to call off all of their events, because of the virus, and they don’t need it right now. They will need me again in the future, but who knows how long that will be, how long this is all gonna last. Basically, almost all my jobs have cancelled on me. Everything has just changed just so quickly. I think in the past three days, just this week.
It’s pretty stressful, I guess you can’t even look for other work because everything is closing down.
Yeah exactly, I think I have to start being creative in the way I make my income.
Yeah, so how are you going to deal with this? What’s your action plan?
I have to rethink the way I’m going to live the next few months. I’ve gotta roll all my costs back, my living expenses back. I’ll have to rethink where I’m living, how much rent I’ll be paying. And yeah, start thinking about the way I make my income. I still have skills, creative people still have skills, people need at this time. You just have to rethink how you deliver it.
I think my plan is to cut back on all my costs, and move cheaper to somewhere I can afford, keep my studio, and keep making my art. Usually, I don’t get much time to make things for fun, or myself. So I’ll spend these months just really slowing down and making some art in my studio. Maybe I could sell some prints online.
Ooh yes, just being innovative –
Yeah, just having to do a reshuffle of everything. I felt a bit shit, all my last jobs quit on me, yeah.
Yeah, it’s all pretty intense. What do think about the current official supports around freelance work?
Well I guess the new stimulus package came out on Sunday afternoon, the original one didn’t include sole traders, but the new package does. Which is great for me, and so many other people are now included, which is really great. But that’s just the strange nature of freelancing, you are in control of it yourself. You don’t really fall into certain categories. If you are out of work for a while, you’re still employed because you’re self-employed, but technically you’re also unemployed because you don’t have work. You are just kind of like an outlier for all these categories, but I think this new stimulus package is great. I think, if you’ve lost over 20% of your work due to coronavirus you’re eligible. There are lots of different parts of it, which different people fall into, and it’s been increased to up to $550 a week, which is a lot for me to live on.
Do you think normally there should be a safety net for freelancers who are out of work?
Yeah it made me think about that, because I guess the whole point of freelancing you are doing it on your own. But it means your only support is really yourself. But I thought maybe this could create a new categories, where sole traders could get support, if for some strange reason you cant get work for a long period of time, like if you get sick, or if something happens in your market. The Coronavirus affects everyone, but what if something, I’m sure it happens to people all the time, but stuff happens to them, it happens particularly to them, and they can’t get any support. They might file for unemployment, but they aren’t really unemployed because they are still trying to get random jobs here and there.
Yeah definitely, it’s crazy actually. A very hard period right now.
What are some of your hopes for the future?
I guess people in general, that people are understanding small businesses are getting hurt, I think there is word going around to help support businesses. I guess the question is, will they be able to?
I hope so! Buy some art from your favourite artists online, shop locally during this time, the big guys will be fine, Coles and Woolies, etc. It’s just the small guys yeah. Even I’ve been thinking about painting free signs for cafes that are struggling,
Hopefully this doesn’t last too long, hopefully we flatten the curve, and it doesn’t last forever. It won’t last forever, but hopefully it doesn’t last too long, and we can get back to living life as we usually do. Maybe taking some time to reflect and slow down. I’ll be taking time to make some art. Maybe in the future, working part time graphic design and sign writing. But for now, yeah just making some art.
Everyone just has to rethink, reimagine, or redesign how they are living right now to adapt to what’s going on.
Haha wow, I love that, thank you so much. Some very inspiring words from Ruby here. Thanks so much again for your time.
Ahahah yes, thanks so much for having me!
Tim Walsh – Camera Operator
Hi Tim, how are you going? Thanks so much for doing this!
Oh no worries, it’s absolutely fine.
Let’s us start by introducing yourself, tell us about what you do?
Yep, I’m Tim Walsh. I’m a cameraman working in the film and television industry, mainly on feature films and TV series.
Oo that’s cool, how’d you get into that?
I had a passion for films when I was a kid, and I got to study at TAFE.
Oh, so did you start working in a company, or how did you start?
Umm, no, So I did whatever I could to get on set. I did thousands and thousands of hours for free, volunteering.
Yeah, I reckon it would’ve been a couple thousand hours volunteer work. Lots of the people I volunteered with, by chance. I said if you guys were busy, and I turned up all the time so yeah.
So you developed through a good work ethic? What was the trajectory from then, to where you are now?
Yeah I had the idea I wanted to be a cinematographer when I was at film school. My job is very hierarchical, you start off as an assistant and work your way up to cinematographer. Now I’m a camera operator, and I’m pretty happy here. I actually wouldn’t mind either just doing this, rather than start doing my own stuff, or delay becoming a cinematographer until later on in my career. I’m enjoying being a camera operator.
It’s really nice you’re so content. When did you start your freelancing work?
Even when I was studying at film school, I’ve always been doing freelance work. I got a bit of work in the arts department, just helping people out on set. I was moving furniture around, delivering, and taking away furniture in the arts department. So that was always freelance.
I’ve always been a freelancer. I haven’t had a normal job since I was in high school. I don’t even think in high school I had a normal job, I was a furniture removalist.
Oh wild, so what was your workflow like? Was it always consistent, or did you have periods where it wasn’t as busy?
I’ve been really fortunate. In my film career over +13 years, I’ve always worked. There have been two occasions, one notable one where there was an 8 month period I didn’t work, that’s been the scariest time.
And the other time was maybe a month. But generally it’s been my decision when not to work-
But we have this thing in the film industry, because you don’t know when your next job is, you say yes to everything, because you’re worried you won’t have any work.
But overall it’s been consistent over those last 13 years?
Yeah, yeah it has.
So when you first heard about this virus, what was going through your mind? Did you think it would affect your work?
Yeah yeah, I knew straight away. When I saw Italy in particular, I knew that this is gonna affect the film industry.
Because it’s not an essential industry. It’s not the health industry, it’s not the food industry. It’s an industry that people don’t need for the moment.
And the other thing is, I’m working for an offshore film at the moment, an american film, and they have a lot of American cast, European cast, Asian cast. They’re coming and going from Australia. When I started to hear about the lockdown and travel bans, I knew it was only a matter of time.
Yeah of course, that makes sense. So when did you notice a change in your work?
Look it was later than I thought it would be, but it was the start of last week. Some of those crew members, and the high up people on the job I’m working on, were self quarantined. It didn’t directly affect the unit I was working on, but we were told of it. Then on Tuesday, their results came back negative, they were fine. But the production made a choice to stand down for two weeks, to let things settle. We’re meant to go back on the 30 of March. But I don’t think, at a minimum, we’re not going back for two months. That’s the general consensus from the other crew members I’m talking to. But at the moment we’ve been told two weeks.
Oh really, so are you in the middle of a film right now?
Yeah, it goes till mid June.
That’s been on hold?
Mm yeah, and I had another job that was potentially going to start in early June, and that’s been postponed till further notice. It’s the future jobs that have been pausing.
It’s a bit nerve wracking. How do you see this disruption playing out in your industry?
This will affect the film industry dramatically. We don’t have job assurance, we don’t have sick and holiday pay. A lot of freelancers are going to suffer.
The other thing is, the start of the year is a quiet period for the freelance industry. But the start of February is where it all picks back up. I only did one day in January, which was fine.
I wasn’t planning much to work. I had a good February, but there are other people who have only done a handful of days, they’re just being hit.
Do you have other concerns? Obviously the loss of work, but are there any others?
Umm, not really. Look, just everyone’s mental health. The people I work with, their mental health, and their actual physical health. Look, I don’t really care about my work at the moment, sure it would be great to be able to work. But my first priority is my family and my loved ones.
I’d say that’s the best approach.
Yeah just gotta ride it out
As you said before, there are no supports around this type of work, do you think there should be?
If I heard some good ideas, I just don’t know how you would go about that. My union has said they would waive fees for two months.
So people are on board to help out?
Yeah so things like that. Filmmakers are putting posts on social media, saying they are sitting around at the moment, and they are here to help, if anyone needs anything. There is stuff like that.
To be honest, I think it comes down to the government, if they could pause mortgages, or rent, that would be the biggest help for freelancers.
Hopefully they will come through with the measures. Now just to wrap up, what are your hopes for your freelancing?
Look, my hopes are that this doesn’t have a knock on effect. I think a lot of people can survive the year, but if this goes on 2-3-4 years, it’s gonna affect everyone.
But freelancers, people in hospitality, and students, they are the ones who are gonna suffer.
Yeah wow, it’s some scary stuff. But thanks so much for your time. I appreciate your words, and good luck with everything!
Yeah no worries, thanks for having me.
Sarah McGrath- Casting Associate
Hey, just gonna check the recording,
Hi, awesome, it’s recording. So, why don’t you tell me about yourself and what you do?
Hey, I’m Sarah, I’m 26. I work in a faction of casting for advertising.
Is it an advertising agency?
No, we’re strictly casting. We don’t cast for fashion or film, we focus on advertising.
Right, so what’s your role in that?
I am a casting associate, which means an advertising agency will come to us with a brief. Usually, I will re-write that brief and push it out to a number of different agencies. Also we specialise in street casting, so we find people who aren’t with agencies. We push that out through Facebook, and then we get all the submissions back. I work a lot on scheduling and organising talent to come in. I do some post-casting stuff, writing contracts, organising talent.
Is this type of work remote, or do you go in?
So, I work from home 80% of the time. The company is a small company, there are three of us, so we have the possibility to work from home. We do go into the studio we have for physical casting. We need to get everybody in, we need our lighting set up, and we need to film people. That’s when we go into the office. But yeah, most of my work is done remotely.
Oh awesome, so how did you get into casting?
I kinda just fell into it. I finished uni, studying communications, global studies, and advertising in that. I didn’t really know about casting, my partner is a photographer, he kinda got me the connection, he got me in. I was ready to do any kind of job. This came available through a friend.
Yeah, it’s really cool. It’s a small company. I was one of the first juniors that worked there. I get to learn a lot, which is good.
So do you consider your role to be a freelance role?
I work through an ABN, so technically I am freelance. Occasionally I do research days for other advertising companies, but casting is my sole work. I am a contractor for them at this stage. I know I can move into something more permanent for them, as the company grows. But I kinda work as they need me to work.
Nice, so on a project to project basis?
Yeah I invoice per project that I do.
And what has your workflow been like since you started working there?
Yeah, I’ve been working there for two years. So usually it would be, a month that’s pretty manic, kinda like full time hours. Working in production, your hours are kind of all over the place. But then, you kind of have 1-2 weeks, that are quite calm and quiet. Which is fine, because usually you’ve been working so hard, it’s kind of like a breath of fresh air.
Yeah for sure, like break. So what did you think about the virus? When you heard about it hitting Australia and Italy?
I was kind of oblivious to it. I didn’t really think it was going to be a huge issue. I was meant to go to the NSW gallery with my grandma a few weeks ago. She was like I don’t think we should go to the gallery, I don’t think I should be around crowds at this point in time. I was literally laughing at her for being so pedantic. Now, I’m like, no, that is so reasonable.
Haha, oh my god, definitely. What do you think about it now? How has it impacted your work?
Work right now, we pretty much have no work coming up.
Damn, why is that?
I think a lot of people are scared of advertising at the moment, because no one is buying either. I’m sure there are a few companies who are looking for advertising at the moment, but there is a lot of fear surrounding that.
There is so much money that goes into shoots, so I think a lot of clients would be holding back, waiting for things to die down. Yeah so, we were doing a job last week, we were kinda finishing it off from maybe a month or so. Then when we were in the final stages of casting, we had to pull it, because the company decided to put a travel ban for the entire company. It’s a global company, and yeah they had to pull it completely.
Which is fine for us, those kinds of things. Once the project is done on our side, usually we still get paid. But I think that’s kind of the last job we will work on for a couple of months
I think a lot of people are scared of advertising at the moment, because no one is buying either. I’m sure there are a few companies who are looking for advertising at the moment, but there is a lot of fear surrounding that.
Months? Really? Do you usually have jobs lined up for months?
Yeah, we are always consistently working on something, it’s rare for us to have nothing in our job folders.
Oh wow, when did the shift start you think?
Well, I noticed last week we were still getting people. I know in comparison last week to this week, we were getting a lot of jobs that were looking to go forward, even know the virus was spreading. I think now they are seriously reconsidering. I think for at least a month people will be holding off.
What are your main concerns, for you personally, now all of that is happening.
I kind of am in a very lucky position. I was saving for a holiday to New York, and so I got another job so I could save more. With my other job, I work with alcohol, and as you can imagine that’s going crazy right now, so many people ordering alcohol. I’m lucky in that respect that I work there, but it’s not necessarily the place I wanna be working for many hours. And also I love my job and it’s going to be very frustrating not to be able to work for a couple of months.
And now it’s my only source of income, I only do 1 or 2 shifts. Because everyone else in that office is at uni, or I work with somebody else that’s a freelancer, everybody is gonna be wanting more shifts. So yeah, my earning capacity is going to be a lot less in the coming weeks, until things start pick back up again.
It’s pretty crazy, it’s a long time. Do you believe there should be supports around vulnerable work?
I think we do have access to Centrelink, but they make it extraordinarily hard. But I think in the next couple of weeks the process will become easier, more people will be able to access Centrelink.
So what do you hope for the future? Any last thoughts?
Yeah, so I feel like being freelance allows you to collaborate with other companies and entities, that you could easily be like, ‘oh it would be nice if everybody was made permanent part time for the creative industry.’ But I think freelancers love the variety of collaboration and I totally get that. Hopefully in the future, after all of this, there can be some kind of support network for people in that position.
Yeah, it seems like there is a big shift towards freelancing. I bet its pretty scary to see what’s going on.
I know, yeah, my partner is just not gonna be working for the next three months. Which is terrifying. It’s easy for someone like me. It’s quite easy for me to get another job. But for him, like photography, it’s his entire career. He can’t just get another job because he needs to be flexible for any jobs that come his way, in terms of photography.
my partner is just not gonna be working for the next three months. Which is terrifying.
Yeah, it’s so hard, and they contribute a lot to our society – the arts.
Yeah they are so crucial.
Well, thank you so much! It’s just that time. I hope things work out for the best for you and for everyone.
Yeah, no worries, we’ll see how it goes.