Part Three: Solutions to Precarity in the Arts

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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 

Solutions to Precarity in the Arts – Advocacy and Community Building 

In the last two articles, I focused on discerning the difference between contractors and employees and how precarity affects workers. In this final article, I want to explore the potential ways we can direct our collective attention to better serve the most vulnerable people within our sector; from advocacy to resources, there are both long-term and immediately prudent ways to create a healthy and secure working environment. 

Tackling precarity in the arts sector requires the full strength of our community. To address the urgent working needs of the independent contractors who help our industry flourish, we need to start with education for organizations. Our galleries, non-profits, and education spaces that depend on creative contract work need to come together to better understand their responsibility to advocate for workers and create a healthy framework around employment. 

To me, an organization’s strength lies in its capacity to be a healthy locus of the broader community it works within – that means responsive and inclusive offerings to the public and creating positive and ethical environments for those it employs to generate its offerings. Within our sector, as we’ve seen in the last two articles, we have some significant disparities that need to be addressed on a province-wide scale. From lower pay rates to precarity, I would love to see arts organizations and non-profits take the lead on advocacy for those they employ and subcontract. 

Right now, cultural workers make markedly less than their similarly educated counterparts in other sectors. In our sector, as of 2021, 65% of artists reported being self-employed. Additionally, Hill Strategies found that in late 2020, 43% of their survey respondents expected to have an income under $20,000 that year – well below the livable annual salary minimum of Saskatchewan at $40,433. With the dramatic increase in the cost of living in 2023 in the aftermath of the economic blow many, including myself, faced since 2020, it is not difficult to see that we have to fight hard to increase the availability of work, the extent of funding, and the viability of meaningful solutions to labour issues. As one of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic, we can speak from a wealth of knowledge that allows us to lobby for better policies for our sector and the broader workforce. 

Continued reductions in contract-based work in the creative sector since 2020 must be properly addressed. Our sector relies on diversity to continue to deliver dynamic, responsive, and meaningful programming to the people of Saskatchewan. In 2020, CAPACOA reported that 1 in 4 arts workers lost their jobs and that only 65% of workers expected to continue working in their sector in 2021. How can we work together for the future of our industry and our passion for delivering creativity to Saskatchewan? As the Center for Global Development notes, “[t]here is a 22-28% chance that another outbreak on the magnitude of COVID-19 will occur within the next ten years and a 47-57% chance that it will occur within the next 25 years. “Policies to support firms and workers during the pandemic can be ill-adapted to the non-traditional business models and forms of employment in the sector.” We have the opportunity to use our experience to deliver a more robust response that can protect all workers working in the arts. 

Universal Basic Income is one strategy to reduce the stress on everyone to overwork; it is a form of guaranteed income provided by the state to ensure no citizens experience poverty from a lack of employment. While UBI might sound like a utopian dream, UBIWorks, a non-profit advocacy group here in Canada, lays out a very reasonable approach. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CERB benefits were necessary and were made available almost immediately. Many groups are arguing for the transition of the CERB program into a basic income rollout, and the evidence in favour is extremely compelling. For example, the “Mincome” experiment to address rural poverty in 1970s Dauphin, MB and the unfortunately cancelled three-year experiment in Ontario. The experiments have shown a significant decrease in workplace-related hospital visits, mental health and sleep improvements, economic benefits, and decreased drop-out rates. 

Another way we can advocate for contractors is by understanding the living wage for our province and the competitive rate for these services in other sectors. The current minimum living wage for Saskatchewan residents is about $20 per hour. In my opinion, a market perspective can ensure that we are making realistic requests for funding that represent the real needs many contractors have. For example, when I work with organizations outside of the arts, even when they are non-profits, my professional rates are often more than double what I am typically offered within the sector. This is not to lay the burden at the feet of any particular organization, many of whom are struggling to keep up with inflation and grant requirements, but to address the system-wide funding need and those who are most affected by it. 

In Saskatchewan, there are limitations to when part-time employees receive benefits as well as barriers to accessing essential care for contract workers. I don’t believe our current system or the Provincial stipulations reflect the needs and working conditions of many workers within the arts. Many people avoid essential health services such as eye exams and dental checkups due to cost constraints and lack of benefits. Additionally, there are many folks who may have difficulty qualifying for personal benefits because of pre-existing conditions or family medical history. Currently, many of the non-profits in the arts fall below the requirements for mandating benefits packages. As a sector, we should prioritize creative solutions that serve us all. 

A sector-wide benefits option would allow all workers, administrators, and contractors to access meaningful care without paying high premiums. By advocating for changes to the Saskatchewan labour laws or creating systems like the benefits plan offered by CARFAC BC, we would be actively addressing the income disparity and access issues within our sector. As organizations that employ people who are falling below the average income, changing how we offer benefits and who can receive them is essential. 

While invaluable resources, such as the CARFAC-RAV minimum recommended fee schedule and Artist microgrants, exist, the pandemic revealed an unmet need for advocacy and educational tools. As a sector, we can only tackle funding concerns in partnership with the larger galleries and organizations that have the needed resources to research and lobby the provincial government. By seeing outside of the traditional systems we all work within, we have the capacity to generate significant change and build a more resilient sector.

My hope for this series was that it would highlight some of the main concerns that I have experienced as a contract worker and the experiences of the survey respondents. With this article’s potential routes for advocacy and the development of resources for organizations, employees, and independent contractors, we can move forward together. I hope we can imagine and build a healthy, inclusive, and ethical sector for many generations of future artists and patrons.