Part Two: Job Precariousness + Future Concern

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Chalk pastel organized by colour, from grey, blue, green, yellow, orange, then red.

An Overview of the Increased Need for Education, Advocacy, and Sustainability for Independent Contractors in the Arts after the Pandemic.  

Edith Skeard for the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance 

Part Two – Job Precariousness + Future Concern

In the first article exploring contract labour in the arts, I examined who the contractor is and how they contribute to Saskatchewan’s creative ecology. I believe that the first step to creating positive, healthy working relationships is to understand which type of labour you are taking on. When we all clearly understand the differences in labour types and their associated needs and benefits, we can hold each other accountable and advocate for a more sustainable sector.

I will focus on job precarity in the second piece of this three-part series. For me, the foundational understanding of labour definitions sets a meaningful locus for the discussion of job precarity and future outcomes, especially for independent contractors.

While measuring job precarity within the creative ecology is complex, talking to our community is the best indicator of the health of our sector and how it has been affected by the pandemic. I surveyed other creatives in Saskatchewan to understand the pandemic’s effects on our community’s already precarious state. What I found was a lack of support, inadequate access to resources, and a move to securing part or full-time work to make ends meet. Independent contractors face a tough choice, continue to work within their field for low pay or find work in other sectors. A lack of funding within the sector inhibits their capacity to argue for fair pay for their labour – a problem exacerbated by inflation and historically low budgets from the province to our sector.[1]

In my experience, the confusion around whether one is or is not an employee should be a major concern for advocates of independent contractors and employees alike. This confusion governs job precarity as organisations employ people without clear or adequate contracts, which has long-term consequences for all present and future working relationships within our sector.  Over half of the survey respondents stated that they have worked as contractors when they felt they should have been in full or part-time positions. As contractors and as employees, there are systems to protect you in employment relationships, but not knowing which space you occupy is a liability for employees, organizations, and contractors alike. This, to me, makes it clear there is a justifiable concern to educate our sector on the differences to empower creatives and organizations alike.

If an independent contractor does not have the appropriate mechanisms in place, they may experience abusive working environments, lack the needed resources to advocate on their own behalf, and be less prepared than their peers in other sectors to secure steady and fruitful work within a successful framework as a sole proprietor. When non-profits and organizations hire people to complete work within the correct framework while empowering them to succeed, we contribute to our sector’s healthy future.

Appropriate mechanisms include accessible education, peer networks, advocacy groups, town halls, and organizational education around contracts, workers’ rights, and healthy governance. In addition, organizations must take accountability for fulfilling the more senior role in any working relationship and be ready to share knowledge about initiating contracts, fair wages, issuing T4As, and information security; on more than one occasion, I have been asked to email or text my social insurance number (SIN) for a T4A for payment under the tax threshold (of $500); not only is email or text an insecure modality for sending sensitive information but demonstrates that arts organizations might not have enough training themselves. Labour education is imperative for everyone working within the creative sector to empower every person with the capacity to create healthy and sustainable working relationships. Ideally, organizations can ask questions during the hiring process that reflect the spirit of the project and give information to independent contractors about how they can protect themselves in this and future projects; examples of the kind of questions organizations can preemptively ask contractors include,

  • “Do you have a GST + PST number?”
  • “Do you have a business identification number”
  • “Do you feel comfortable sharing your social insurance number (it’s not required for issuing a T4A, and in other industries, you would never have this information)?”
  • “This is how we store your sensitive data if you choose to share it with us.”
  • “What rate do you charge for your services?”

Questions such as these encourage new and experienced contractors to consider themselves a business.  By having informed organizations, we can create informed contractors who may otherwise not have easy access to the information they need to have a fruitful career or meaningful protection from harm and precarity.  Many of us who enter the workforce within the creative sector are juggling multiple revenue streams without really having a full plan on how that will work or what the downsides can be. Arts organizations can help protect independent contractors from the consequences of future pandemics and poor working conditions by setting a standard for high-quality working relationships.

Informed organizations must be clear about their needs, inform the artists they hire accordingly and avoid possible liability. Someone who should be an employee but is paid as an independent contractor is a liability to the organization as they are responsible for knowing the difference and paying contributions and taxes accordingly.

Employees have fundamental rights to decent working conditions and access to resources that can help them navigate a conflict with an employer, while independent contractors have alternative streams for ensuring compensation or the fulfilment of a contract. Knowing the difference between each labour situation and knowing how to navigate each working stream confidently is necessary for employment stability, and our boards and Executive Directors should bear a significant amount of responsibility for ensuring these streams are appropriate to the hire. With over 59.9% of survey respondents saying they have had contracts that should have been a part or full-time position, there is clearly a disconnect in hiring practices within the arts sector.

Whether or not a self-employed artist derives their entire income or a portion from their contracts can affect their perception of precarity. Many of us, myself included, have balanced traditional employment and contracts simultaneously. For some, they may have a primary job within another sector entirely or a part-time job that they work contracts around.  Due to Covid, our survey noted an increased number of people balancing traditional and self-employed income. The danger is that burnout is significant within our sector. Sask Culture pointed out a study showing that “[s]tress and burnout levels among artists and art workers are high (62%), with stress levels even higher for those who are deaf or have a disability (65%), are BIPOC (68%), serve as a primary caregiver (69%), or are a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community (78%).”[2]

The situation becomes even more dire when independent contractors work for unliveable wages but are also responsible for paying their benefits and premiums from those low earnings. The reality for many working within the non-profit creative sector is that low wages are a part of regular work, and CARFAC minimum rates within the industry are often tied to specific project grant funding instead of being a regular feature. Additionally, in the last decade, I cannot point to one contract where I was paid more than the minimum recommendation from CARFAC. When we have low-paying and unpredictable work, we are significantly less likely to have savings in place or be able to pay the income percentage required for taxes. Without extreme budgeting or having the resources, time, and knowledge to charge taxes for projects and services, many artists get overwhelmingly burdened by end-of-year expenses.

Within the arts sector, the Cultural Human Resources Council notes that “[d]espite the high levels of education among workers in the cultural labour force, employment income recorded among cultural occupations tends to be lower than for the Canadian labour force overall.”[3] For organizations, employees, and independent contractors, external funding creates a constant tension between programming capacity and costs; however, independent contractors ultimately bear the most significant consequences of this dance.

Of our survey respondents, 77% reported that Covid-19 significantly impacted their work, while 20% reported a moderate impact. In addition, 60% of respondents said they still feel their ability to find work is affected – three years after the initial shutdowns. If it is reasonable to assume that we may experience another pandemic or emergency, what measures do we have in place to protect the most vulnerable workers in our sector?

When we look over the current state of the arts in Saskatchewan, it is clear that there are barriers to economic stability and success – even before additional systemic obstacles are considered. If we are striving together for a more secure future, we must creatively address these barriers with meaningful action.

The future of labour in the arts must consider ways to secure adequate funding to meet labour costs, utilise clear contracts for independent contractors, and create support systems, policies, and education opportunities, all of which rely on building a healthy interdependence between organizations, employees, and independent contractors. In the final piece for this series, I will look at ways we can collectively address precarity and build a future-oriented system to thrive

Read part one to this series here!




Edith Skeard (they/them) is a queer artist working in multiple mediums including sound, drawing, performance, and installation. They received their BFA in Visual Art with distinction and BAhons in Philosophy at the University of Regina. They now live and work in Saskatoon, SK located within Treaty 6, the traditional territories of the Cree, Dene, Nakota, Saulteaux, and Ojibwe, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.

Edith can also be heard on SAA’s podcast Arts Everywhere and as part of our op-ed series Living the Arts