Freelance talent – critical to our creative industries, but under threat?
17 April 2019
Freelancers are a crucial part of the UK economy, forming two million of the UK workforce and contributing £125bn to the economy in sales generated. Freelancers not only drive economic output but also help raise innovation and efficiency by working outside of traditional employment patterns.
This is especially evident in the creative industries, worth more than £100bn in GVA, where more than half of those working in creative roles are freelancers. The industries’ value is larger than the automotive, life sciences, aerospace and oil and gas industries combined. Difficulties in accessing vital talent therefore pose a significant risk to both the creative sector and the wider economy.
Overseas freelancers, a vital workforce
The Federation has found that almost two-thirds of our members surveyed employ freelancers from overseas and 70% believe that these positions cannot be filled by UK workers.It is access to the specific skills of those overseas freelancers that enables many creative enterprises to grow, in turn creating even more jobs and opportunities. Given that the vast majority ofcreative businesses employ 1 – 4 people, while only 1% employ more than 50, freelancers are also vital for meeting short-term business needs. Specialist, temporary labour required at short-notice in the creative sector can include particular casts for productions, visual effects experts for films, or stylists for fashion campaigns.
The current non-EU immigration system does not provide a route for talented freelancers to come and set up in the UK. The few hundred Tier 1 visas are restricted to those who meet the ‘exceptional talent’ or ‘exceptional promise’ criteria but its narrow definition excludes many highly skilled workers. Tier 2 visas are likewise unsuitable for freelancers, which requires a single employer to act as a sponsor and who must also meet the £30,000 salary threshold; far higher than the average remuneration of many creative sector roles.
The Creative Industries Federation, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) have all pointed to the weaknesses of an employer sponsored visa system, which fails to offer freelancers the flexibility they need. Federation research showed more than half of nearly 700 creative freelancers surveyed had up to 10 contracts in a given year, making a visa based on a single employer’s sponsorship unfeasible.
For now, UK creative businesses can mitigate the effects of the immigration system as EU freelancers are able to enter and set up easily in the UK, or come here temporarily. However, the Government has stated that the free movement of people will end post-Brexit and there is a risk that future immigration rules will undermine the creative industries’ access to talent. The system for migration from non-EU countries, if applied across the board, will pose significant challenges for creative businesses, adding extensive time for visa processing and an extra cost burden on employers.
A new approach for freelance talent
To support the movement of talent from both the EU and the rest of the world to the UK we need:
1. A mobility framework with the EU which ensures EU freelancers can continue to work temporarily in the UK without any impediments and vice versa.
2. A route for EU and non-EU freelancers to enter the UK through the introduction of a Freelance Visa.
This custom Freelance Visa would be similar to the existing Tier 1 visa but with an enhanced scope beyond ‘exceptional talent’. The definition of ‘designated competent bodies’ would be expanded to include bodies representing all of the sub-sectors within the creative industries. These bodies would recommend awarding visas on the basis of the authenticity of and value provided by the freelancer. Visas would grant multiple entry to the UK for an initial period of 24 months with the potential for extension upon reaching satisfactory levels of employment.
Both the Future Relationship between the UK and EU and the Immigration White Paper accept that continued temporary mobility of talented workers is key for the economy. If no future relationship is negotiated to achieve this, it is essential that three month visa free travel (which is set out by the UK Government to last until the end of 2020 in the event of a no-deal) continues for EU citizens while business adjusts to the current non-EU immigration system.
Brexit and the end of free movement threatens the UK’s status as a welcoming destination for freelancers. Given the key role freelancers play both in the creative industries and the wider UK economy, Government must implement the right future immigration system if we are to remain a global hub for creativity. We must ensure that our new immigration system not only retains the benefits of free movement for freelance workers, but also use this historic moment as an opportunity to transform our immigration system and harness the full potential of the freelance creative talent across the UK, the EU, and the rest of the world.
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