COVID-19 puts musicians out of work with inadequate support

Arts industry workers are being hit hard by event cancellations.

As a freelance musician, I am used to feeling anxious over gaps in my work schedule. I am also used to worrying about catching a serious illness or spraining a wrist — things that could exclude me from a job in which I have no sick leave.

This instability in my work life comes with an industry where the number of salaried positions has been steadily dropping, due to the lack of funding for arts organisations.

However, the complete evaporation of work that musicians and performing artists are experiencing as the COVID-19 crisis hits has gone beyond all the other challenges.

It reveals how little safety net there is for a workforce largely comprised of freelancers and casual workers.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) is asking employers to implement formal and informal leave arrangements in cooperation with staff, especially where casual employment is concerned.

They also support the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in calling for a further two weeks leave to be made available to employees, and for equivalent entitlements be extended to individual contractors.

Unfortunately, musicians still face being stood down without pay, owing to section 524 of the Fair Work Act 2009, which states that if an employee cannot be usefully employed during a work stoppage that is outside the employer’s control, then the employer is not required to pay employees who are stood down.

Many musicians will need to rely on their newfound eligibility for Jobseeker payments, for which the government has pledged an extra $550 on top of the usual fortnightly allowance.

The government has also implemented the extremely dangerous and irresponsible strategy of allowing early access to superannuation savings for those who are eligible for Jobseeker payments.

Dipping into these funds could cause a compounded loss of tens of thousands of dollars in retirement income, especially now when the share markets are low.

To make matters worse, those in most danger are young people with little savings, many of whom are casual workers and who are now suddenly unable to pay their astronomical rents.

Just how much income has been lost in the performing arts industries, due to COVID-19 and the catastrophic bushfires, can be gleaned from visiting the website ilostmygig.net.au. As of March 21, workers in the performing arts industries of Australia and New Zealand listed a loss of $300 million. Some 599,000 people have been impacted by the cancellation of 274,000 gigs and events.

The effects of event shutdowns have been felt all around the world. Freelance musician friends in the Britain have had work cancelled without pay. Others have been partially compensated by their employers, some of whom have paid out for lost work until May this year.

Another friend, who is in a salaried position with an orchestra, is on a wage for the time being. But in coming months, he could see his wage drop to the maximum £2500 per month, stipulated by the British government’s new scheme which aims to cover 80% of salaried incomes.

Unfortunately, this payment is not available to freelancers who will instead need to rely on Britain’s universal credit system, with a standard monthly allowance of £409.89. This system has been hit by £34 billion in cuts by Conservative governments over the past decade and, like Centrelink in Australia, is poorly equipped to help the people who need it most.

The Musician’s Union (UK) has contacted orchestras about their intentions towards freelance players. With each musical organisation being differently resourced, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The union has encouraged companies to work with it to find alternative methods of presenting concerts, with a focus on livestreaming.

However, the ability to perform new concert programs would depend on an orchestra’s ability to physically meet and perform together.

The cancellation of my most imminent work has only compensated me for one week, although there is talk of potential additional assistance for casual workers. Commitments further into the future have not paid out as the contracts were not yet signed.

The future of live music in Australia feels uncertain, since we don’t know how long mass gatherings will be restricted. Producers may be hesitant to book new events until the crisis is well and truly over and none of us know how long that will be.

As the world comes to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many displays of solidarity from unions and some employers who have paid their casual musicians for lost work.

We can only hope that arts organisations in Australia receive enough government support for their casual staff. As a salaried colleague of mine stated recently: “We literally couldn’t do it without you. And we regard you all as part of the family.”

Around the world, freelancers, casual workers and the self-employed are feeling the sharp end of the large-scale casualisation of the workforce.

Governments must compensate us fairly for lost wages and not force us to rely on the leavings of welfare systems which have been gutted by years of austerity.

A few extra dollars or pounds per month is not enough.

[Oliver Simpson is a freelance double bass player living in Sydney. He has worked as a freelance orchestral musician for the past decade in Australia, Britain and New Zealand.]

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