Let’s celebrate! In the weird few weeks since my last column, when I was asking the government to help freelances, a rescue package has been announced by government claiming to cover 95% of freelance workers. So now everything is fine, right?
If only. As always, the government’s response fails to appreciate the modern gig economy – and certainly not as it applies to costume people. The new scheme does not apply to anyone who earns money substantially through PAYE, which accounts for a significant number of costume freelances.
Some of them are entitled to ask for furlough through an employer, but only if they happened to be in a PAYE job on February 28, leaving those who happened to be between jobs or on an invoiced job at that time out in the cold, eligible neither for the employee retention programme, nor freelance assistance, nor an Arts Council England grant.
I’m one of those in this position: with years of tax returns to my name but most of my income PAYE, I do not qualify for any of these rescue measures. Having left my full-time job in December, I don’t have the option to ask the Young Vic to re-enrol me on PAYE so that I can be furloughed, bizarre as it is even to consider it. Even if I were entitled to do so, this is entirely at the discretion of the employer.
In a survey of costume professionals last week, not a single respondent on a zero-hours contract was earning anything
Last week, the Costume in Theatre Association ran a survey of costume professionals to assess the impact of the financial effect on them. More than 70% of them earn money wholly or partially through PAYE short-term contracts, and at the time of asking, just 6% of those were still working or on furlough. And not a single respondent on a zero-hours contract, such as some dressers, was earning anything.
BECTU is pressing employers to look after their former PAYE employees, but this seems to be the wrong approach altogether. Why are we going through this tortuous process? Why can’t HMRC simply look at people’s self-assessment tax returns and pay them directly (if we must insist on basing assistance on income at all)? The whole thing is bafflingly obtuse.
With luck, this mess may clear up soon. This situation is developing very fast and the government has been made aware of the problems, so perhaps by the time I write my next column it will all be sorted out. But it’s still frustrating that this had to be such a patchwork of measures. It’s hard not to suspect that this government is still obsessed with accidentally not giving any help to anyone it deems undeserving.
Fortunately, while the government falls short, the Theatrical Guild is still there to help bridge the gap. The only charity for backstage technical theatre, front-of-house and costume workers, we can provide some assistance to theatre folks who are experiencing hardship. I joined the committee last year and I encourage anyone in temporary urgent need to write to us.
Catherine Kodicek is a freelance costume designer. She was previously head of costume at London’s Young Vic