After years of looking through old fabric and costumes in hire houses and costume stores, I am now accustomed to washing my hands as if I am about to conduct open heart surgery. So I suspect I am not the only costume person to think “I can do this” in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
For a few weeks, many of us believed that following handwashing advice and keeping our distance from others, by avoiding rush hour or working from home, would be sufficient protection. But having reached pandemic status, it is obvious we are in for the long haul.
In a time of national crisis, it feels somewhat trivial to harp on about the specific issues of costume workers. But the problems we face in our profession are a microcosm of those faced by so many in today’s society.
The sad fact is that even in boom times, costume freelances’ fees have barely covered modest living, let alone holiday or sick pay. As freelances don’t get paid if they do not work, costume people have become accustomed to pushing through illness by dosing up on paracetamol and toughing it out.
And let’s be honest, employers have been happy to let them. Years of quietly redefining costume roles as sole traders or freelances and not digging too deeply into the actual hourly rates worked has enabled employers a greater degree of flexibility than ever before. They get the same labour and creativity but with none of the legal responsibility of paying minimum wage, National Insurance contributions or sick, holiday or maternity pay.
Faced with Covid-19, the government’s advice to “self-isolate” is hugely problematic. It is no good instructing freelances to self-isolate if they make themselves homeless in the process. Recognising this, the government is now allowing self-isolating freelances statutory sick pay from day one and access to hardship funds, but this is only the very tip of the iceberg. Those measures say nothing about freelances who remain well but lose work because their show is cancelled or their theatre closes.
As the theatre world goes into shutdown, what measures are there to protect those who depend on it for a living?
As the theatre world goes into shutdown, what measures are there to protect those who depend on it for a living? Germany has recently announced that freelances will receive compensation for loss of earnings due to the pandemic. The Spanish government has promised to “cushion the effects” for the self-employed. Our government should be following suit.
This crisis could provoke ordinary people to rash acts if the government fails to take immediate action to protect our financial security as well as our health.
It could introduce measures to freeze rent and mortgage payments, establish a universal basic income scheme to ensure everyone can afford to eat, provide free necessities like nappies and sanitary products, and implement free internet and mobile phone access. Why not? It could be a step on the path to a fairer and more equal society.
Catherine Kodicek is a freelance costume designer, previously head of costume at London’s Young Vic. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek