Blog Post

In conversation with London’s self-employed workers

The pandemic has pushed many self-employed Londoners into financial hardship. Workers in the city’s creative industries have been particularly hard hit as freelance projects were cancelled, theatres shut down and collaborative spaces became inaccessible.

We spoke to three self-employed workers in the capital’s creative industries who have been impacted by the pandemic, to coincide with the launch of our latest report. They shared the joys and challenges of self-employment with us, as well as their thoughts on how policymakers and employers could better support them.

Rose Mason – Freelance writer

“The pandemic happened in my first year working full time as a graduate. I became self-employed to pursue freelance writing and in March 2020 I was set to make the most money I’ve ever made, but by April all my freelance projects were over and I was essentially unemployed. Since then I’ve been scraping by, working many different hospitality and casual jobs which have been constantly in flux over rule changes and closures.

In every lockdown I’ve experienced the same dramatic loss of income. This tax year my monthly income is averaging just above my rent and is nowhere near my actual expenses. Spending my savings to get by has made me feel I’ve lost identity with my money – I have no control over my finances and it’s so difficult to plan for the future.”

What do you enjoy the most about being self-employed?

“I love the freedom and dynamic nature of [self-employed] work. It’s exciting when every day is different and I get to work with different people, and choose projects and companies that I find interesting. I also have the freedom to alter my work schedule to fit around my life.”

What is the greatest challenge of being a self-employed worker in London?

“London comes with expensive rent and a generally more expensive life. My income is never the same month to month so I find it stressful to constantly add up how much I’m earning and compare it to my expenses – sometimes finding that it’s barely covering them.”

What kind of action from policymakers would be most beneficial to you?

“A system that mirrors employer pension contributions would make self-employment a lot less daunting. I also want to see a better understanding of the diversity and hardships of self-employed people represented in policy decisions, such as COVID-19 income support plans.”

What resources are helpful to your development as a self-employed worker?

“I’m a writer so I find it important to read and consume educational media to keep learning and develop my expertise. [Existing] journalism within my niches, like non-fiction books and YouTube videos, have developed my knowledge which I have brought to my written articles, essays and other content.”

Reflecting on your experience with clients, can you share a time when you wish things had gone differently?

“I once asked for a consistent monthly fee from a client and they instead suggested joining full time, which would mean giving up my other projects. I knew this wasn’t right for me but I struggled to assert myself and didn’t feel I had the confidence to negotiate.”

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Rose Mason is a London-based freelance writer.

Anonymous – Film director

What do you enjoy the most about being self-employed?

“The best thing about being self-employed is the control one has over one’s time: and the flexibility this allows. I work across several different industries – picking up work in television production, film as well as theatre and private education.

Self-employment means I am in control of what to prioritise in any given week or month. The ability to pick up and put down work is especially important alongside caring responsibilities: if you need to prioritise something other than work, self-employment can allow you to focus on those.

I’ve also found self-employment to be a better way to manage relationships with clients. As a freelancer one has a more nuanced relationship with a boss than as a direct employee – both sides have options! During a project you are constantly wondering if you’d want to work with each other again, and although this is complicated it can also lead to incredibly fruitful and motivating working relationships.”

What is the greatest challenge of being a self-employed worker in London?

“Without question the housing market. As a young person, knowing if and how I will make rent has been the biggest challenge. I am lucky: I’m from London and have moved home over certain periods in my career without losing out on work in the capital, but without this option I’m not sure how I would’ve made it in the creative industries.

It is a classic mantra that as a freelancer your work is either a feast or a famine, and I’ve found this to be true. Either I’m incredibly busy and stressed or have nothing to do! It’s hard to find a good balance, and the psychological strength one needs when there isn’t work on the horizon and there’s rent to pay is hard.

It’s also a challenge to know how to set one’s rate effectively: you don’t want to undersell yourself, but you also don’t want to miss out on work. I find this tension really hard, especially in London where there are always people younger than myself to compete with.”

What kind of action from policymakers would be most beneficial to you?

“This is a tricky question: I don’t know enough about policy to be as specific as I’d like, but I do wonder what it is about London that makes it such an expensive city to live in compared to Berlin, say, or Lisbon.

I wonder what policies could be brought in to protect young people who are renting in the city and create more affordable housing options. A policy that allowed young self-employed people to build up a portfolio career in this city without taking on a million other jobs to pay rent would be a real blessing – and beneficial for the UK economy in the long run.

The creative industries return huge amounts into the economy, we just need to allow young people to invest in themselves in a sustainable way early on!”

What resources are helpful to your development as a self-employed worker?

“Resources that allow me to budget effectively have been incredibly important to my development as a self-employed worker. Apps like Monzo, for example, where I can set aside specific amounts and keep track of expenses have been invaluable for filling in self-assessment and keeping abreast of invoices.

Specific to my industries, schemes and networking groups that bring freelancers together (Women in Film and TV, for example) to campaign for change and collate experiences have been really useful. I’m not officially part of Bectu, my industry’s union, but their advice and guidance on pay has also been very useful. It’s incredibly important to have an independent body to point to when in negotiation for rates.”

Reflecting on your experience with clients, can you share a time when you wish things had gone differently?

“I was working for a production company and coming toward the end of my contract with them when I enquired about a possible extension: I had been told that they’d be likely to extend my contract and had not been looking for other work, as they’d previously extended me twice – and I’d been told numerous times that they were happy with my work.

During the last couple of weeks, however, they’d hired a new person, who I began to work with and share my knowledge with. However, I was aware that this new person was taking on a certain amount of my workload. I also realised this new person was slightly less experienced than I and was therefore charging a lower rate than me – despite taking on a similar level of responsibility within the project. It became clear that the company was not going to extend my contract. I couldn’t help but feel I’d been undercut by my new colleague.

Now I look back and wonder if I would have been kept on if I charged a lower rate: but that’s my rate, and the rate that unions like Bectu have set for the role I was fulfilling. I wish I could have had a more transparent conversation with the company and my colleague. We ultimately left on good terms, but it was tricky.”

Emily Buchanan – Graphic designer, illustrator & copywriter

What do you enjoy the most about being self-employed?

“I’m a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to my work so freelance life suits me down to the ground. I find it a lot easier to focus when I can work at my own pace and in my own environment. I also like that all of the big decisions about a project have been made before I come on board. I find the process of distilling those decisions into a creative output really rewarding. 

I also like that every project I take on has been earned – if the quality of my work is consistent, the clients will be too, and this means I can never get complacent.”

What is the greatest challenge of being a self-employed worker in London?

“Easily the greatest challenge is balancing the financial precarity of freelance work with the exorbitant cost of living, especially since the pandemic began. 

“I moved out of London in January this year because it had become unfeasible to live there. My partner is a self-employed sound engineer and musician, so with the music industry in tatters and my work increasingly unpredictable, renting in London was no longer an option.”

What kind of action from policymakers would be most beneficial to you?

“In 2020, I received no financial support from the government whatsoever because I had “only” been self-employed for a year. What’s more, my partner got financial support based on the profit of his work, not his gross income, so that meant we lost almost half our combined earnings. Had it not been for a very decent landlord who agreed to a rent freeze, we would have been a lot worse off.

As such, policymakers need to offer more financial support to freelancers – irregardless of how long they have been self-employed or whether their business is profitable. I think this can be achieved quite simply: with a universal basic income for all that would ensure everyone’s basic needs are met.”

What resources are helpful to your development as a self-employed worker?

“I’m a member of Community Union. Since joining, I’ve felt more connected to other self-employed people and empowered to participate in their advocacy work, so joining a union is something I can thoroughly recommend.

In terms of the development of my skills, my greatest resource in that regard is YouTube and my appetite for a challenge. If I don’t know how to do something, I teach myself how to do it using online tutorials. That way I’m always widening the services I can offer and the sort of clients I can collaborate with. My mantra is: say yes first and figure it out later.”

Reflecting on your experience with clients, can you share a time when you wish things had gone differently?

“There have been a number of instances where I have underquoted for a project because I’m not comfortable asking for money. I think this is partly due to the way I’ve been socialised as a woman—asserting the value of my expertise is sadly unconventional—but it is also driven by a fear that my current project could be my last. In the present economic climate, I worry that I might put clients off by being too expensive, so this definitely shapes the way I enter financial negotiations. That’s why a universal basic income would be such a transformative policy for self-employed workers.”

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Emily Buchanan is a freelance multidisciplinary creative specialising in graphic design, illustration and copywriting for the third sector.