Protecting freelancers in the arts

The pandemic has thrown into stark relief inconsistencies in how freelancers are treated, and the Good Practices In Singapore Theatre Work Group plans to fix that

In March, stage manager Samantha Chia commenced rehearsals for a mid-year theatre production.

As news reports of the Covid-19 outbreak came streaming in, she began wondering if the play might be cancelled, but was assured that it would go on.

Then came April, when the cast and creative team learnt that the show would be postponed to next year. Those involved would get paid 20 per cent of their fees in advance - provided they were able to commit to the new dates.

Ms Chia and many others in the production, which she declined to name, could not. This meant they would get nothing for the three weeks of rehearsals they had already done.

"We're talking about designers, cast members, crew members," says the 38-year-old. "Music that has been arranged, a script that has been written, costumes that have been designed.

"The company said if we couldn't make it for the new dates, they just didn't have the means to pay us. We felt that it wasn't fair. It wasn't right to just brush us aside and not make any kind of compensation at all."

The coronavirus pandemic has been a major blow to performing arts the world over, with theatres going dark, shows cancelled en masse and those working in the arts - most of them freelancers - left uncertain of their next pay cheque.

The turmoil has thrown into stark relief the inconsistencies of the Singapore theatre scene when it comes to how freelancers are treated.

This has led to several theatre practitioners assembling to produce a paper, which they hope can better codify best practices across the industry and improve protection for freelancers.

The Good Practices In Singapore Theatre Work Group members range from directors - such as The Necessary Stage's Alvin Tan and Drama Box's Kok Heng Leun, a former Nominated Member of Parliament - to actors and writers, such as Life Theatre Award winners Adib Kosnan and Jo Tan.

They have so far conducted 14 focus group sessions, gathered the experiences of more than 110 people working in theatre, and hope to speak to more. They aim to publish and present the paper to the National Arts Council (NAC) at the end of next month.

"We've started having these conversations, even between companies and producers, looking at our contracts and seeing how we can do compensation fairly in these times," says Kok, 53.

"One important question was, how should we set the practices so we can be fair to everybody and survive through this specific time? It became natural for us to think about what will happen in the future and if we could set a code of conduct that companies could use, so freelancers could feel better protected when they're working with us."

  • The group plans to tackle...

  • • Contract terms guidelines

    • Workplace safety, including protection against intimidation and bullying

    • Procedures covering sexual harassment and assault

    • Clarity in job scopes

    • Protection of creative rights

Jo Tan, 38, says it is not a simple case of companies treating freelancers badly. "It's the fact that the contractual terms are so non-standard across the whole industry - a lot of the time, people don't know what is the basic minimum they have to provide to protect the people they work with."

For example, she was paid in full for a script she had written for Sing'Theatre's musical Another Singaporean In Paris, which was meant to go on this October, but has now been postponed until 2022.

In contrast, she has heard from a few friends who have not been paid for their scripts. One friend was asked to deliver the full script for a show that may or may not run at the end of the year, but will be paid only after the performance. "So he does not know when it will be staged or when he'll get paid for it."

Sing'Theatre artistic director Nathalie Ribette, 57, could not imagine paying Tan in 2022. "This is so far away. Will we be still alive? And I thought, she needs money now... Without writers and performers, theatre companies cannot work."

It can, however, be hard for theatre companies to stump up payment when they themselves are struggling to keep the lights on. Ribette says she has had to make two staff redundant and cut her own salary by 20 per cent.

Checkpoint Theatre fully paid all the cast and crew for its shows, The Nuclear Family - postponed - and The Heart Comes To Mind - presented as an audio recording - even though several had fulfilled just 20 to 40 per cent of their contracted duties.

The company's losses for its March and April productions come up to nearly $300,000. "It is enormously difficult for a small company like ours," says joint artistic director Claire Wong, 56.

Paying its freelancers is not just "the decent thing to do", but also crucial in preventing a talent drain in the long term, she adds. "But for companies to bear the burden of paying freelancers for pandemic cancellations is not sustainable. It's a compassionate short-term measure that needs to be backed by long-term government support, in the interests of the sector as a whole."

She hopes, for example, that the Jobs Support Scheme, a government scheme to subsidise wages for employers, could be extended to help companies protect arts freelancers, and not just full-time employees.

There are existing avenues of help for arts freelancers, such as the NAC's Arts Resource Hub, which includes legal templates on its website. An NAC partnership with Law Society Pro Bono Services also allows freelancers to sign up for legal clinic consultations or online talks.

Ms Chia, who has worked in the industry for eight years, sought assistance from the NAC with her case and was eventually able to get the company to pay 40 per cent of the original fees. "Even that was an uphill climb," she says.

The group's efforts include comparing contracts between companies and planning outreach to freelancers, especially those fresh out of school who may be more vulnerable and feel pressured to accept unfair wages or an unsafe work environment.

They also hope to cover in the paper issues such as workplace safety and sexual harassment and assault, and are working with other organisations such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

It will be hard to get all these things in law, says Alvin Tan, but the paper could be disseminated by the NAC as part of its grant process.

"It has given us guidelines for our KPIs (key performance indicators) in terms of governance, financial accounts and things like that, so when it gives us our three-year grant or so on, we're wondering if it could also give the paper out. You cannot enforce it, but you can recommend it."

NAC citizen and sector engagement director Linda de Mello says she would welcome such a paper, which could be added to the hub's website.

"A positive, mutually understanding relationship between freelancers and companies that engage them will be good for the cultural sector, and this is important beyond the Covid-19 challenges," she says.

"NAC and our cultural institutions will certainly walk the talk and uphold such best practices in the commissioning and engagement of arts freelancers. This will go some way to raise the professionalism of the sector."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2020, with the headline Protecting freelancers in the arts. Subscribe