The Comment: Three million PAYE freelancers have been left to rot by the government

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THE COMMENT – A Getintothis perspective

Whilst the government have made arrangements to protect many unable to work, Getintothis’ Ellie Phillips makes the argument for a group in our creative industries that remain unprotected.

The government’s exclusion of 1.7 million PAYE freelancers from accessing Self Employed Income grants [SEISS ] only serves to make arts and culture, the media, and the music industry less inclusive and less diverse.

Only those wealthy enough to ride out this wave with £0 income with be able to continue within those professions, where short-term contracts and freelancing is the norm.

Many have already decided that they won’t be able to return – they simply can’t afford to.

Even if (by some very savvy saving) PAYE freelancers had managed to put aside enough of a financial safety net to get them through three months (the standard amount widely recommended) how are they expected to survive for six months and beyond?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “Our top priority has always been to support people” – but he forgot to add a disclaimer that he’d leave 3 million taxpayers to rot.

The UK went into lockdown on March 23, and now, more than 3 months on, while those eligible for SEISS have received up to £7,500 from the government, PAYE freelancers are going homeless, turning to foodbanks and suffering psychologically because of their exclusion from the scheme.

Many aren’t even eligible for Universal Credit, often because they live with someone (even a housemate) who is earning, or because they have a small amount of savings. So much for setting aside that three months pay, hey!

To add insult to injury, on May 29, Rishi Sunak announced that the support scheme for the self-employed was being extended – but the 1.7 million PAYE freelancers (and at least 1.3 million other taxpayers) would still be excluded.

Rishi Sunak [Image via MHCLG Flickr (license CC BY-ND 2.0)]

Those who have already received three months financial support from SEISS have now be told they will be given a second grant covering three more months (this time providing them with 70% of their average income up to £2,190 per month).

By September, at the end of the six months period, people eligible for SEISS or furlough will have been given up to £14,070 by the government, while PAYE freelancers will have received £0.00.

These aren’t fat cat conglomerates, or those earning 6-figure salaries; These are hard-working creatives, talented musicians, graphic designers, security staff at venues and backstage staff.

These are some of the lowest paid workers across the country, who are Taxed. At. Source. – meaning there is absolutely *zero* scope for fraud, and HMRC can clearly see what they’ve earned.

The long-term impact of this exclusion from financial aid is set to be disastrous for diversity, given that only those from privileged backgrounds will be able to ride this out and return to the industry that they love.

Universal credit is not enough to live off for the majority of people in the UK, and we’re about to head into a recession where there will be fewer jobs available across the industry.

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Candice Wilson is a freelance stage manager from London. In-between those jobs (which are self-employed) she works part-time in sound departments, looking after the mics on big west end musicals (which is under PAYE).

She has been excluded from accessing SEISS because more than 50% of her total income was taxed at source (via PAYE) while the rest was made by invoicing clients and paying the tax with her tax return at the end of the financial year (traditional self-employment).

Candice told me: “When lockdown hit, I was halfway through a UK tour which was cancelled that night and I lost all other sources of income.

“I have savings – like most sensible freelancers – to cover short periods of unemployment/accidental injury/sickness (since we’re not covered by anyone for these things). I was also saving for house deposit and for my tax bill.

“I’m excluded from SIESS, and because of these small savings, I can’t access Universal Credit and I can’t even get Job Seekers Allowance.”

With no income for over three months, Candice has been burning through her savings. Admitting that she has no idea when live music and theatre will be back in full swing, she has begun selling her belongings in a bid to survive.

Empire Theatre, Liverpool audience

She said: “It looks like theatre won’t be back until sometime next year. I’m just trying to think of inventive ways to make money –  in the meantime I’m selling everything I can on eBay!”

The impact is significant. Candice explained: “I’ve trained and worked professionally since I was 16 (nearly 26 years) and I’d like to think I have a unique set of skills that are sought after. I’ve never had problems finding work.

“The arts are so important and that’s reflected in audience reactions and comments. It can be life-changing. To be forgotten by the government is incredibly disappointing.

“I’ve never claimed any support before and have followed the rules they set out. To see some people offered support (I’d never take that away) and not be able to access any help myself makes me feel angry and unfairly treated.

“Why should I stay at home when Dominic Cummings doesn’t have to? Why should I pay taxes when they’re not going to help me?

“I’m a good person that does good work and pays into the system that is now ignoring me. It’s infuriating. I’m anxious and sad about my future.”

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The COVID-19 lockdown and the wilful neglect of PAYE freelancers by the government has not only caused mass devastation, it has acted to highlight and further exacerbate an already flawed system.

There’s no doubt that the media, music and creative industries are flawed; new starters and those changing jobs are effectively forced into the PAYE freelancer way of working, which provides no employee benefits: no sick pay, no maternity pay and no redundancy pay.

Worryingly, in 2015, the Equality and Employment Rights Department published a report highlighting how BAME workers have been disproportionately affected by the growth in casualisation (part-time, insecure and low-paid employment) since the 2008 recession.

In fact, Trades Union Congress’ analysis of the Labour Force Survey found that workers aged 20-29 from BAME backgrounds are almost twice as likely to be working on a temporary basis than their white counterparts.

The TUC concluded that failure to “challenge precarious employment” will result in “further entrenchment of racial inequality in the labour market.”

PAYE freelancing is attractive to companies because they reap the benefits of less liability and more flexibility, while all the risks and associated insecurity are passed to the workers.

The insecure setup means that those from less affluent backgrounds, whom are disproportionately BAME, are far less likely to return to – or indeed go into – media and the creative industries, if their only way to do so is to become a PAYE freelancer.

They simply don’t have the bank of Mummy and Daddy to fall back on.

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