The ‘creative’ industries: greet the new boss: worse than the old boss
My grandfather was a labourer on the Belfast docks before the Second World War, walking from the Shankill each morning to stand in a pen with other workers from which a foreman would pick out who among them would have work that day.
Were my grandfather alive today he’d be surprised to see that the new economy in Northern Ireland is as dependent upon casual labour as it was then, and that despite all the rhetoric about digital revolutions and peace dividends, work in the wee six is becoming, if anything, even more precarious than it was in his day.
I’ve been reading up on the so-called creative and media industries in Northern Ireland, described in the strategic action plan published by Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL, 2008), as ‘one of the fastest growing and increasingly important sectors of the economy’. There are apparently 2500 ‘creative enterprises’ in Northern Ireland employing 34,600 people. For somewhere with a population of less than 2 million, that’s a significant proportion of the workforce.
If we’re talking about the creative media industries, specifically, then the figures are slightly less. An estimated 700 companies, employ 10,900 workers – smaller, but not insignificant. This all looks very healthy until you consider the quality of employment in this sector. On the surface, it’s a mixed picture. According to the Sector Skills Assessment for the Creative Media Industries in Northern Ireland, published in January this year (2011), there is an ‘oversupply of potential new entrants keen to enter an area commonly seen as glamorous and exciting’. In 2008-09 there were in the UK 720,000 students in further education and 757,000 in HE doing courses that might be said to be ‘relevant’ to the creative media industries. Only 10% of those students could anticipate securing work in the industry within 6 months of leaving education, although the better news for graduates of media studies courses is that the industry is made up of 51% of employees from relevant courses.
One consequence of the oversupply of graduates, explains the Skills Sector Assessment, is a high level of voluntary or unpaid work undertaken in order to get a foot in the door and a first paid job: ‘more than two fifths (46%) of the NI Creative Media Industries workforce had undertaken unpaid work in order to get into the industry – a similar proportion to the UK average’.
Another deeply troubling issue for graduates looking to enter the creative media industries is that almost half of the workers (48%) within the sector in Northern Ireland are ‘freelancers’. When I asked BECTU, the media and entertainment union, what the single biggest issue facing its members, I was told without hesitation, freelance work.
Let’s be clear, despite the groovy sounding moniker, freelancers are casual labour, an old heavy industry term that my grandfather would have understood very well.
Casual labour is pernicious. Although it is often presented as something desirable – ‘allowing people to be flexible’; giving them ‘freedom from routine’ – the most obvious effect of not knowing where the next pay check is coming from is anxiety and stress. The other consequence is that workers are made vulnerable to exploitation, because no freelancer wants a reputation for being anything less than compliant. But another consequence, according to the Skills Sector Assessment, is that freelancers miss out on staff development and training opportunities, since employers are unlikely to invest time and money in up-skilling temporary staff.
At last year’s Belfast Media Festival I heard employers lament a ‘skills deficit’, which they seemed to think was the responsibility of FE and HE to fix. As I said then, I doubt that colleges and universities have the resources to do this. And even if they did, all that employers are effectively saying is that vulnerable, temporary workers should pay for their own training and up-skilling, which given the conditions of their employment, they can probably ill-afford. If the media and creative industries suffer a skills deficit, then responsibility for that lies largely with themselves, given how careless they are with the existing skills base.
As workers in the sector get older, the news doesn’t get any better, especially for women. The Skills Sector Assessment says that the ‘oversupply of people wanting to enter the industry has also had implications for retention as well as recruitment… people who choose to start a family commonly find it difficult to combine this with a career in the creative media industries and the problem appears more acute for women’.
Women are poorly represented within the industry – only 22% compared with 47% across Northern Ireland, a figure that gets worse among older women, who are left to struggle, trying to balance raising a family with the unpredictable hours and, one would think, competitive nature of securing freelance employment.
The creative and media industries trade on glamour and excitement. They seem to hold out the promise of creative, fulfilling work. But the facts don’t seem to support the popular reputation that the sector enjoys in the minds of the young people who aspire to join it.
All of which leaves me with a number of questions:
For instance, what is the preferred personality of a prospective worker in the creative and media industries? And how do workers already within the industry articulate their experience –in other words, what do they say and how do they talk about their experience of work?
And there are other broader questions, such as how much should we invest in a sector which is so careless with its own skills-base and which depends so heavily upon casual labour? What sort of future does that propose?
The creative industries look set to grow, or perhaps the word is colonise the world of work, for it seems that there is little limit to the industries that can be appropriated by (or appropriate for themselves) the term ‘creative’, it is such an empty signifier. After all, isn’t every form of human industry at some level creative? What special claim can the new economy make to being ‘creative’ that industry in the recent past couldn’t?
I would argue that a key element to prefixing ‘industry’ with the word ‘creative’ has been the deepening of insecurity in work, the absence of welfare and diminished employee rights.