LONDON, United Kingdom — The year 2020 was set to be a good one for freelance Design and Sales Director Joseph Keefer: his consulting practice was expanding, and he was in discussions with a luxury label about taking on a full-time job.
Covid-19 put a stop to these plans. Within a week, jobs were frozen; clients went quiet.
As a longtime freelancer, Keefer did his best to create a safety net, diversifying his skill set so he could land lots of different types of gigs. But when the industry stopped altogether, his preparedness failed him.
“It's a tidal wave,” Keefer told BoF. “We could kind of see it on the horizon as it started, but that doesn't mean you understand how it's going to crash.”
Keefer, of course, is far from alone. More than 40 million people have filed for first-time unemployment in the US, while a quarter of the UK workforce has been furloughed. But as retail in the US and Europe reopens and brands begin producing fashion collections and marketing campaigns, they are slowly but surely rehiring. And many of those positions will likely not be filled by full-time employees, but by gig workers instead.
The gig economy was already on the up in the US, according to non-profit organisation The Freelancer’s Union, which projects that more than half of the country’s workforce would be freelance by 2027. While The Freelancer’s Union’s official figures have not been revised since the coronavirus outbreak, Executive Director Rafael Espinal did state that many furloughed and laid-off workers will be “reconsidering what their role in the economy will be.”
In the UK, there are over five million freelancers, according to the Office for National Statistics, a number that may also grow as recently unemployed workers rethink their career options.
The fashion industry has long relied heavily on freelancers — like photographers, stylists, creative directors, designers, writers, event planners, pattern-makers and product developers — to design, produce, manufacture, shoot, market and sell garments.
There will be many more opportunities for freelancers in the future.
Post-pandemic, the growth of that market is likely to accelerate. “There will be many more opportunities for freelancers in the future, particularly digitally-led and tech-led opportunities,” said Pip Jamieson, founder and chief executive of professional network The Dots. “Remote working will also open up more opportunities for freelancers because companies are becoming kind of more flexible and willing to work with people [from a distance].”
In European countries with clear labour regulations, freelancers might be the first to see jobs return precisely because of the flexibility of their employment. Many hard-hit businesses won’t want to make big financial commitments like taking the salary risk of hiring full-time employees during uncertain times. After the 2008 recession, “permalancers,” hired to do the jobs of salaried employees without the benefits, became more common. The American temporary workforce grew 29 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor.
“Companies will have to be very agile when allocating their resources,” said Management Artist’s Massimilano Di Battista. “It’s going to take setting up a system that allows for flexibility, meaning [less] full-time employees and a larger number of freelance collaborators.”
But an oversaturated market could lead to more competition as well as a lowering of freelancer rates across the board. Companies struggling with the economic repercussions of Covid-19 are likely to hire cheaper talent.
The pandemic might also act as a catalyst to legitimise, protect and secure freelance labour rights. As lockdowns forced the economies in both the US and UK to a standstill, programmes were implemented to support self-employed people who otherwise would have no redundancy pay to fall back on. In the US, the CARES Act is intended to provide financial aid for American freelancers. Similarly, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme offers UK-based, self-employed people a taxable grant based on the average profit made over the past three tax years. These are benefits that would not normally be granted to self-employed people, who are considered employers, not employees, by the government.
“This is the first time that I've ever heard of photographers and graphic designers and a lot of other fellow self-employed people actually being able to access social services like unemployment [benefits],” said New York-based designer Chris Gelinas. “It’s the first time they are even just being recognised as part of the workforce.”
While it remains to be seen if government aid for freelancers will be for the long term, private corporations may be incentivised, or required, to implement measures that better protect their self-employed workers. For example: companies, like Uber and Lyft, which rely heavily on freelance workers, have come under pressure to improve workers’ rights, extending paid sick leave — calculated from a worker’s average earnings — and paid time off for gig workers. Fashion companies could follow suit.
Employers might also consider streamlining compensatory systems in order to avoid late payments, which time and time again put freelancers in difficult financial positions. “When you are already established and you have [cash] coming in, it might be less urgent,” Management Artists’ Di Batista said. “But when you're younger and you're relying on that couple of hundred pounds you are owed for jobs, it’s hard to wait 60, 90, 120 days.”
These protective measures could also include contractual clauses that support self-employed workers when times are tough. “Many [freelancers] don't have agency representation or anything like that to help them navigate through difficult times,” Keefer said, adding that employers must become incentivised to strengthen freelance contracts to include unemployment pay instead of employing freelancers on a stop-gap basis.
Many [freelancers] don't have agency representation to help them navigate through difficult times.
“If your contract gets terminated before the six weeks or six months [that was agreed upon], you're not going to recoup any of the loss of whatever was remaining,” Keefer added.
A commitment to better protecting a growing self-employed workforce could also help the fashion industry in the long run. Fashion is facing an existential threat as low consumer confidence and an economic downturn means shoppers are less willing to spend money on discretionary purchases. While many fashion leaders have called on the industry to slow down the pace of production and break with the fashion calendar, brands also need to be more creative in how they engage with consumers in an increasingly uncertain world.
“Freelance lends itself to more creativity — and to more corporate creativity — because you're not beholden to a five-day work week,” said Recho Omondi, designer and founder of slow fashion brand Omondi. “[Freelancers] can dive into many different companies and better see what the industry will need to look like going forward.”
But Omondi added that a growing freelance workforce won’t be the answer to the fashion industry’s wider reinvention, which so many designers are calling for. “It could help, but it won’t necessarily change anything [in a meaningful way],” she said.
To Omondi’s point, the industry — including its treatment of self-employed workers — is unlikely to transform overnight. The changes required to secure better workers’ rights for freelancers are largely legislative, which can take many months to come to fruition. In the meantime, Tamara Cincik, founder and chief executive of industry lobby group Fashion Roundtable, advises that freelancers seek external support and guidance.
“Everyone needs to join a union, be that Bectu for fashion creatives, Equity for models, or Unite for garment workers,” said Cincik. “You cannot be protected if you have no protection and we have seen so often across this crisis, the issues are not democratic in their impacts or in their solutions.”