The Covid-19 crisis has brought to light the lack of protection of freelancers and independent workers in the UK and US, forcing governments to adjust their policies to include them in income support schemes and sick leave.
The crisis has also accentuated solidarity and camaraderie between fashion freelance workers, who have started to think about unionisation and self-organising.
While organisations lobbying the government for the fashion sector and protecting freelancers exist, some think a formal protecting body specifically dedicated to fashion independent workers is needed to address industry-specific issues.
Patrick Clark (pictured above), a self-employed fashion stylist and writer based in Paris, has gone six weeks with no work during the global pandemic, as jobs were cancelled as soon as the lockdown was announced in France on 17 March. Clark is one of many freelance fashion workers, including stylists, makeup artists, hair stylists and models, who have suddenly lost their sources of income since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the world, forcing countries to enact lockdowns and strict social distancing measures that have made fashion shoots and productions impossible.
Self-employed workers represent a significant part of the workforce in creative industries. In the UK, there are more than 660,000 self-employed creative workers, according to 2019 data from the Creative Industries Federation. In the US, 75 per cent of those working in the arts and design sector are freelancers, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Edelman Intelligence for Upwork and Freelancers Union. As a cross-sector group, freelancers’ contribution to the economy ranges from £275 billion in the UK to $1 trillion, or five per cent of GDP, in the US. Yet the workforce remains one of the least protected.
“This crisis has exposed how little our current labour policies offer independent workers in terms of rights, protections and benefits,” says Diane Mulcahy, author of The Gig Economy and professor at Babson College, Massachusetts. US and European governments have had to change their policies in response: in the US, independent workers now qualify, for the first time, for unemployment insurance, which supports workers who have lost their job by no fault of their own. In the UK, the self-employed have gained access to statutory sick pay, which wasn’t available to them before.
Since the start of the lockdown in the UK, freelance stylist and writer Roberta Hollis has been giving advice on how to navigate the situation to her freelance colleagues through her Instagram profile and a dedicated Covid-19 freelance support page on her website.
© Roberta Hollis
The crisis has also exposed and exacerbated long-standing issues in the sector like late payments, low wages, arbitrary pay scales, free labour and precarious commissioning, which, while vexing the whole category, are common in fashion. The nature of the highly competitive industry makes it difficult for people to share experiences with each other, create a support system and build a common front to hold clients accountable for late payments, wages and commissions. As the pandemic pushes on, some freelancers are recognising the need for unionisation.
Rafael Espinal, executive director of the Freelancers Union in the US, says that the majority of individuals who have reached out to the union are people who work in the fashion industry. “This crisis has created a larger awareness of the need for there to be more organisation.”
Present and future representation
There are a number of organisations and councils in the US and the UK dedicated to promoting fashion and representing the sector with the government, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council. Both countries also have organisations dedicated to self-employed workers, like the Freelancers Union in the US, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in the UK. But no union or organisation specifically dedicated to independent workers working in fashion exists.
“My sense is that people within the sector are not aware that they might need a union as they have never had that structure and support,” writes Tamara Cincik, founder and CEO of Fashion Roundtable, a lobbying group that has worked with the UK media and entertainment contract and freelance union Bectu to launch a new union offer for membership to fashion assistants, a category that often works under poor payment terms and without insurance.
Freelance fashion workers signed to a creative and talent agency are in some cases more protected, as agencies can chase invoices from clients. “To make sure everybody gets paid has been paramount for us,” says Carol Hayes, founder of Carol Hayes Management. The agency, as well as others including S Management and Webber Represents, has also financially helped talents during the pandemic by advancing payments, regardless of whether the invoice was covered by the client. Most of the agencies Vogue Business spoke to were also offering guidance to their talents on how to navigate government schemes and applications.
Agencies can be a buffer between client and freelancer, but talents might also need to be protected from their agency by an independent body that can offer external support in cases of mistreatment, abuse or financial litigation.
Linden Staub’s founders Esther Kinnear-Derungs and Tara Le Roux.
© Isabella Lombardini
Model agency Linden Staub pays an annual subscription to Equity, the UK trade union for performers, on behalf of all of their models. “We make it very clear that a lot of the services [Equity] provides will protect them against us should the need arise,” says co-founder Tara Le Roux. “It gives a layer of protection between agency and model that a lot of models don’t have.”
Since its founding in 2016, the agency has enacted a next-day payment system, paying its models the day after the completion of the job and advancing money for clients in 90 per cent of the cases. During the crisis, Equity, together with other creative unions and the FSB, lobbied the UK government to pass the self-employed income support scheme, which allows the self-employed to claim a grant equal to 80 per cent of their average monthly trading profits covering three months and capped at £7,500. The union keeps a hardship fund for members, provides a mental health helpline and can obtain legal advice on behalf of members for contract issues. It also details financial support and advice on its website, specifying differences according to sector from theatre to new media.
Equity supports performers across sectors, with a strong focus on the entertainment industry. Both Le Roux and co-founder Esther Kinnear-Derungs believe fashion-specific unionisation could better address the systemic and specific issues of the sector, from fair and timely payment terms to ethical treatment.
For Andy Chamberlain, IPSE’s policy director, unionising freelancers presents the challenge of grouping diverse workers, with varying levels of qualification, salary and experience, under common rules. Self-employed workers in the UK can still achieve representation with the government and advocacy through membership to organisations including IPSE, FSB and the Creative Industries Federation. These organisations are currently asking the British government for an extension of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to the newly self-employed and for it to cover more than three months, for example — policies that will benefit freelancers across sectors.
Organisation through camaraderie
Still, without formalised resources, freelancers are left to navigate these potential benefits on their own.
“There is a lot of show of appearance in the fashion industry,” says Roberta Hollis, a freelance writer and stylist based in London, adding that while the discourse about mental health issues in the industry has become more open and transparent, there is still a barrier in talking about financial and career struggles. “People are secretly struggling [but] if we all just openly talked about it, a lot of people are in the same situation.”
Patrick Clark on the set of a Bulgari campaign in London in 2019.
© Tom Brannigan
Scott Shapiro, a New York-based fashion editor and stylist, says that camaraderie has formed as freelancers, typically siloed from their peers, are providing each other with pointers and guidelines for navigating the situation. He adds that colleagues around him have started discussions about self-organising. Clark says that awareness has increased around collective working conditions and the urgency to solve universal problems. “Solidarity between colleagues has accentuated,” he says.
“The only support I’ve got is from people that are in the same boat as me,” says Jodie Hyams, a freelance makeup artist based in London. Hyams is in favour of the creation of an organisation to provide guidance specifically to freelance fashion workers, which could also offer support with late payments, specific guidance on safe shoot protocols and protection for artist fees and usages, all issues that are likely to become even more relevant when work resumes.
“If there was a union that really specifically reflects the needs and the rights of our industry, I would definitely join one,” says Clark, adding that the extraordinary conditions created by the pandemic have made the need more evident.
“For people in fashion to understand why they need a union, it needs a culture change,” writes Cincik. “But if a pandemic is anything — and it is many things — it is a culture change where the floor is taken away from under you.”
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