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Circling the  Drain Illustration by Pamela Rounis.

Circling the Drain

In Writers’ Rights, Nicole Cohen argues that the media’s treatment of freelancers leaves many risking financial ruin. Erin Pehlivan takes a closer look.

This past year, I was working as a digital copywriter and editor on a full-time contract for a large national company when I received an email. All contractors—the majority of our team—would be subject to a 10 percent pay cut. We already lacked benefits, paid vacation time and sick days, and yet were expected to work the same hours and meet the same deadlines as the full-timers. We each fought back, asking for exemptions. I’d signed a contract for a specific hourly rate and expected the company to honour that. In the end, my wages weren’t cut, but not all of my coworkers were as lucky, and one left for another job.

Among all the contract jobs I’ve ever worked, I’d never experienced something that felt so unethical. At twenty-three, I’d graduated just after a recession with an honour’s bachelor of arts degree in international development and communications studies, completely aware that full-time jobs with benefits were being replaced with freelance gigs and a contract-reliant permalance culture. Since then, I’ve worked seasonal, part-time contracts in retail and admin because I couldn’t get a job in my field. I’ve worked jobs that turned into full-time positions after budgets increased. When jobs are scarce, there’s often no choice but to adapt and take temporary work while searching for “something better.”

Many companies view workers as costs that need to be minimized. In 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that 11.3 percent of Canadians were employed in temporary jobs. Virtually no industry has been left untouched, and workers in career paths where freelancing is the norm—especially in the creative, digital and media worlds—have been hit particularly hard. 

In Nicole Cohen’s book Writers’ Rights, she catalogues the losses of freelance writers and journalists in a digital era: stagnant rates, intensifying workloads, long hours, limited access to labour and social protection, fewer full-time unionized jobs, and less control and ownership over one’s work. As foreign correspondents and investigative budgets are cut and freelancers can’t make ends meet without supplementing their income with corporate gigs, less time is devoted to reporting on serious issues. What’s especially dangerous, Cohen argues, is that these conditions undermine the purpose of journalism in a democratic society, which is to add to public discourse, knowledge and debate. 

Through interviews, case studies and her own survey of freelance writers, Cohen provides fascinating historical context to freelancing and documents its many paradoxes. Freelancing, she writes, provides a way to pursue autonomy and buck the typical nine-to-five job. At the same time, media companies have exploited workers’ desires for flexibility by offloading the costs and risks of production onto individuals, ultimately shirking their responsibility to pay writers fairly. 

Despite mainstream commentary lauding freelancers as ideal workers due to their adaptability and entrepreneurial spirit, Cohen argues that pay rates are historically low. According to a 2015 Writers’ Union of Canada survey of 947 writers, the average respondent’s income from writing is only $12,879. Cohen writes that in 1979, that average was $25,000. This dip did not happen in isolation: between 2005 and 2010, according to Statistics Canada, the average pay for full-time journalists failed to keep up with inflation. 

Cohen notes that some writers do find success as freelancers. Nicole Dieker is a thirty-five-year-old American freelancer who produces listicles and how-to content while tallying her income and words written every month on her blog. “Within an hour,” she writes, “I can give you the ten best celebrity wedding dresses, or a thousand words on how to get your kids to eat healthy snacks.” Dieker writes approximately 3,000 words per day; she’s had more than 1,300 stories published in forty-four publications, and earned $63,571 in 2015. 

But Dieker is an anomaly. Cohen brings to light another writer making a living solely as a freelance digital journalist. He works ten to twelve hour days, seven days a week, for outlets whose rates start at $50 to $100 per article. He isn’t alone: many others work on dozens of longer, well-researched pieces per week with no ability to take breaks for fear of missing out on jobs. Freelancers also often wait  for payments while having no access to health insurance and no ability to save for the future. For many, the freelance life isn’t so much the work of the future, but a return to a much more difficult past. 

In the sixteenth century, writes Cohen, freelance pamphlet writers and news gatherers worked on a per-gig basis. With the rise of newspapers in the eighteenth century came soaring literacy rates and a growing middle class. The standardization and industrialization of newspapers brought on by corporate ownership incited low pay and poor working conditions. By the 1930s, though, newspaper workers began unionizing, transforming journalism into a middle-class job. After the Second World War, wages increased again as large-scale advertisers played a bigger role in publications. But by the 1960s, even as business investments and conglomerations were shaping the cultural industries, writers’ rates had stagnated. 

Historically, freelancing for magazines and newspapers in Canada was seen as a stop on the path towards more prestigious work. Magazines were often culturally valuable but financially frail, funded by reader subscriptions or as pet projects of wealthy individuals. As they turned to advertising-based models, though, magazines could suddenly afford to pay a larger stable of freelancers and could hire staff for bigger, ongoing projects. These trends occurred through to the 1970s; then, corporate ownership and lean production models began to re-intensify in an increasingly globalized, deregulated and privatized context. The rise of the internet further heightened competition and created a thirst for search-engine-optimized “content.”

Today, revenues, readership and ad money for major dailies are dropping and small-town papers are rapidly shuttering. But Cohen argues that some large newspapers and magazines continue to be successful commodities that generate audiences for advertisers. Rogers Communications, for example, earned $12.9 billion in 2014, making a $5 billion operating profit. Its media arm, which comprises 14 percent of firm revenue (3 percent of profit), brings in $1.8 billion, with publishing constituting 11 percent of that revenue. And yet, Rogers recently announced cuts to several of its print publications, including Maclean’s, which will shift into monthly instead of weekly, while Flare, Canadian Business, Sportsnet and MoneySense will become strictly digital. 

Publishers use the language of economic uncertainty to justify low rates and unfavourable copyright contracts, where writers often don’t see passive profits from having their works republished, relicensed and repurposed. Since these contracts are rarely negotiable, freelancers often have no choice but to sign away their rights, or else they risk not being published at all. 

If freelancers can’t really affect their own rates, Cohen proposes a few solutions. Universal basic income, for example, could be one way to help precarious workers during slow periods and between contracts. Another idea is a shift towards policies that could support a growing number of freelancers. Former NDP Member of Parliament Andrew Cash’s Urban Workers Strategy proposes expanded access to employment insurance, income tax averaging, pensions and health benefits for temporary, self-employed and freelance workers; it also proposes enforcing labour laws for these workers. (Unless the NDP is federally elected, though, it’s unlikely this will be realized.) The Status of the Artist Act, enacted in 1995, addresses the risk of freelance cultural workers violating the Competition Act if they collectively join to demand minimum fees. However, the Act only covers artists in the federal jurisdiction, meaning that private sector companies are excluded because they operate under provincial jurisdiction. Though it’s well-intentioned, Cohen writes that the act “has yet to bring about concrete changes in artists’ working conditions.” 

Ultimately, Cohen states that unions, such as the Canadian Freelance Union and the Canadian Media Guild, have potential to improve circumstances by merging to become a larger union and then collectively bargaining with publishers. Staff at digital newsrooms at Vice, Salon and the Guardian US have begun organizing, asking for fair and transparent pay, minimum salaries, raises and promotions. Vice Canada also asked for benefits for contract workers, while the Guardian News Group updated their contracts to protect freelancers’ payments and copyright. Freelance writers themselves have begun speaking up through websites such as Who Pays Writers? and Pay Me Please, which publicly hold media companies accountable for not paying on time (or at all). Finally, through organizations such as the Canadian Intern Association, workers are calling out exploitative, unpaid internships. 

Despite these gains, Cohen asserts that freelancers face hurdles in improving their conditions. The rise in remote, co-working freelancers and entrepreneurs has quickly outpaced Canada’s current labour laws and social policies, making it difficult for many workers to access employment and disability insurance, lines of credit, mortgages and apartment leases. Freelancers, who are classified as entrepreneurs, self-employed individuals, independent contractors or small business owners, seemingly don’t need legal protections via unionization, according to Cohen. But they also don’t hold the same economic status as entrepreneurs who generally control the broader conditions in which they work, and accumulate capital without having to sell their labour power; in fact, she says that self-employed workers have more in common with employees than entrepreneurs. “Most freelance cultural workers are generally not imbued with the power and agency that entrepreneurs traditionally enjoy,” Cohen writes.   

For workers in other industries, the salient lesson to learn from researching freelance writers’ livelihoods is that solidarity is key in improving conditions. Freelancers, who Cohen describes as highly individualized, must envision themselves as part of a “broader class of working people” if they want to see concrete improvements to their conditions. The contemporary freelancer is riddled with financial insecurity, burnout, anxiety, stress, depression and isolation; the long-term consequences of not improving their situations may be dire. 

My generation understands that work is changing. According to Generation Squeeze, a national campaign advocating for young people’s economic rights, earnings for people aged twenty-five to thirty-four are down; at the same time, we have larger student debts and face higher housing costs. Andrew Langille, a labour lawyer who founded the organization Youth and Work, argues that these conditions have made it nearly impossible for Canadian youth to start families, save money and buy homes. 

At the time of writing, I still work for the company that threatened to cut my pay. My contract ends in December, at which point I wonder what will happen with my wages. While there are an abundance of success stories about the modern freelancer, I haven’t taken the leap just yet.

Everyone’s situation is different. For some, freelancing is freedom. For many others, it’s another pitfall of precarity. As material conditions continue to decline, though, one thing has become clear: it’s time for workers to rise up.