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Who's defending freelancers in Italy and Europe?

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Irene Andreoni

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From culture to journalism to communication, dominating the digital world: nowadays freelancers are omnipresent in the economy. However, they're also the category least protected and were strongly hit by the consequences of COVID-19. Is it possible to imagine a social battle that goes beyond professional fields and hierarchies of belonging?

"COVID-19 had a strong impact on freelancers," says Professor Renata Semenza from the University of Milan, and author of Lavoro apolide: Freelance in cerca di riconoscimento ("Working stateless: Freelancers in search of recognition") and host of the new podcast episode of Europa Reloaded: Freelance d'Italia e d'Europa, unitevi! ("Freelancers of Italy and Europe unite!").

Freelancers, private contractors, self-employed professionals - the terms can vary, but they all define one thing: the quota of freelance work and, employment in general, that is most rapidly growing in Europe. According to the European Institute of Statistics, more than 20 million people in the continent are self-employed.

How can the exponential growth of freelancers in Italy and Europe be explained? "This concept was generated in the 1980s, when, due to the great technological and economic transformation, services originally incorporated within the companies had to be externalised," says Semenza.

But here is a half-paradox at play. Even though nowadays freelancers are omnipresent in the economy, they are also the least protected category of professionals. For example, with the reduction of working sessions at the European institutions, interpreters not employed by the EU - around 1000 professionals - essentially lost their job.

"Since May 26th 2020, the yearly contracts approved in 2019 were cancelled," explains Tomasz Opocensky, Head of Delegation at the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). Instead, the institutions proposed a forfeit contribution of 1,300 euros for occasional gigs within the end of the year.

However, according to Opocensky, who is also member of the mobilisation initiative #EuAid4Interpreters, the offer is not "decent". His opinion is shared by Alexandra Geese, former interpreter and now representative of the Green party in European Parliament: "Even though, due to the freelance status of these professionals, the European institutions are technically not wrong, a more decent offer would be fairer. Moreover, these interpreters pay taxes directly to the EU and therefore don't have any welfare rights in Belgium," Geese underlines.

Among all this, it must be noted that the professional field of interpretation is one of the best protected, thanks to various trade associations, both on a national and European level. But who is taking care of freelancers on a wider spectrum?

Freelancers need protection

Focusing on the freelance landscape in Italy, in the last few decades, new trade associations and organisations have emerged - such as the NIDIL-CGIL (Nuove identità di lavoro or "New Work Identities") and ACTA (l’associazione dei freelance or "the Freelance Association") which try to protect this slice of the country's workforce.

Did they achieve this goal? Between the ups and downs, important progress has been made. "In the last few years ACTA fought to introduce maternity leave for freelance women and to reduce the rate of the national mandatory pension fund," explains Susanna Botta, vice-president of the association. However, COVID-19 hit this part of the workforce strongly, also due to the lack of a universal welfare programme that is able to guarantee unemployment benefits independently from the affiliation to a professional field.

On a side note, in order to stress how Europe is falling behind in this respect: in the United States there is a Freelancers Union with 490,000 members, while on the other side of the Atlantic, the equivalent counterpart is nowhere to be found. There's the organization EFIP - the European Federation of Independent Professionals, but as of now it does not even have a reachable website.

The case of the cultural sector: music and theatre

One of the many sub-categories of self-employed professionals that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic is the cultural sector. "Culture, performance, event organisations, media, communication: the sectors are studded with freelancers," Semenza continues.

Some of the professions most at risk in face of the pandemic are actors and musicians. After all, it is no coincidence that dozens of initiatives throughout Europe have been created with the aim of rehabilitating these professions in the public eye. In Italy, social media campaigns and full-fledged social movements like #IoLavoroConLaMusica and #AttriciAttoriUniti have been going viral. But there are dozens of other examples in Europe. In Slovenia, where the cultural world which is full of freelancers - freelance associations even helped the Ministry of Culture to define the support measures for the sector. According to the Slovenian art collective Beton Ltd., COVID-19 created "a new spirit of solidarity and new stimulated social battles."

More generally, what is the destiny of culture?

Besides the impact of COVID-19, these battles aim at the more general rehabilitation of the whole culture industry. In which sense? It does not come as a surprise that entertainment workers are not considered on par with other professionals.

Tiago Rodrigues is the frontman of 5ExBand, a Portuguese cover band which during lockdown tried to raise awareness among the national authorities about artists' condition: "The government gave us each a compensation of 400 euros during the crisis. That's all. While during the year we usually earn on average 2,500 euros per month."

But what is the root cause of the scarce consideration of the cultural industry in the eye of politics, which became so evident during COVID-19? Heidi Wiley, director of the European Theatre Convention (ETC), a network of 40 public theatres in Europe, believes that European societies must find an agreement on the nature of culture: "First of all, we have to talk about the value of culture. Is it a luxury good? Something accessible only to few people who have money and time to spend for this activity? Or is it an essential good with a relevant role in the system that must be supported like other industries?"

In addition to all this, the steady decrease of public funding must be considered. Benoit Machuel, General Secretary of FIM, the International Federation of Musicians, claims that "all European countries have experienced a drop in resources in the last few years." The reduction of funding is an significant variable, since "traditionally, in Europe there has always been the conviction that it is the public's responsibility to fund culture." And if for somebody the digitisation could offer an alternative scenario to live shows, Anita Debaere, Director of PEARLE, the European Federation of organisations and companies specialised in live shows, claims that "only a part of production companies will choose the path of innovative solutions."

Can social battles be brought together, independently from the professional category?

After listening to representatives of the cultural world, it still difficult to combine the social battles of freelancers with other professional categories. What's the reason for this?

Freelance work is still seen as a system anomaly. Some believe it is the system that should be changed. As an example: for many years before the foundation of NIDIL, the approach of trade unions was mainly to try transform freelance work in subordinate work.

But is it a realistic scenario? According to a survey by the French association MALT and EFIP, 70 percent of European freelancers would be self-employed by choice. If this data would be really representative of the freelance population in Europe, the traditional strategies of "fight against precarity" would be weakened as a result. According to the Slovenian collective Beton Ltd. previously quoted, "there will always be professions in the entertainment sector that will be precarious, because artistic languages require continuous change." This does not mean that, for example, the phenomenon of the so-called "fake self-employed" is not real (even in the culture industry). It simply implies that also freelancers must have the guarantee of being protected in crisis scenarios like COVID-19.

One of ACTA's current battles is linked to the creation of a universal income, as underlined by Botta. A welfare model where the protection of workers does not depend from their formal affiliation to professions and trade associations. This approach would clearly question decades of transformation of the welfare state in Italy. However, in light of the spike in the number of freelancers in Italy and Europe, a debate on the opportunities of such operation seems increasingly necessary.

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Translated from Chi difende i freelance in Italia ed Europa?