State of the artist: how to protect cultural and creative workers?

On 19 May 2021, cultural venues re-opened their doors in France after months of interrupted business. The cultural and creative sectors were amongst the worst hit by the pandemic, and lost over 10 million jobs in 2020 alone according to UNESCO. Yet many of the emergency support measures put in place by governments initially missed many of this workforce, given many rely on non-standard employment types. Countries had to innovate quickly to prevent them from falling through the cracks.

The virus was a wake-up a call for our approach to non-standard employment. New challenges, such as high inflation, are likely to pile further pressure on those in more precarious forms of work. The time is right to reflect on how to level the playing field between creatives and those in standard employment relationships, and better support cultural workers through life’s ups and downs.

Cultural workers are more likely to be self-employed than those in other sectors. In 2020, on average 29% of cultural workers were self-employed in OECD countries compared to 14% across sectors.

In many countries, workers in this sector can miss out on benefits enjoyed by other forms of employment, including social insurance, depriving them of a crucial safety net. They can work many more hours unpaid through hidden rehearsal or practice hours for their jobs, and after a lifetime of work, many creatives can come up short in retirement, lacking a sufficient pension.

Cultural and creative workers are much more likely to be in nonstandard forms of employment

Share of workers who are self-employed, work part-time, have non-permanent contracts, or have multiple jobs, OECD average, 2020

Note: OECD average includes Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Data for Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States are from 2019.

Source: OECD (2022).

The “status of the artist”, as defined by a UNESCO recommendation, calls on countries to strengthen the social and economic rights of artists given the nature of their work. The devil, however, is in the detail. No countries have found a perfect gap-free formula, but there are plenty of promising examples.

  • In 1936, France passed legislation to complement the income of cinematographic workers as they shift employers between gigs. Through their legal status as intermittents du spectacle, those working in a set of performing arts occupations receive unemployment benefits in addition to their income as long as they clock 507 hours in contracts per year. In 2020, over 240 000 people helped make stable wages as intermittents du spectacle.
  • Since 1964, the French Social Security Code also includes a specific social security system for self-employed artists, involving a tailored way to contribute to and activate retirement, health and access to other welfare, such as unemployment benefits or housing assistance.
  • Since 1983, social security legislation in Germany helps make self-employment in culture a more viable career. To make up for low contributions to social protection programmes, companies that use artists’ work help finance their health care, old age and disability insurance, mirroring the benefits of a traditional employment relationship. The State and artists themselves also contribute to the fund. In 2018, 180 000 companies contributed to this Artists’ Fund.
  • Since 2012, South Korean law insures artists when they rehearse and practice, and thousands of performing artists now receive the benefit of occupational safety legislation. An Artists Welfare Foundation helps this group finance this insurance coverage.
  • In 2018, Colombia extended its retirement complement system for self-employed workers, known as “BEPS”, to creative workers. Working through subnational government, cultural workers can now accumulate rights to a pension through self-paced contributions regardless of their employment status.
  • In 2022, Spain advanced in its creation of its own status for the artist, including a group of 57 measures set to fill gaps in the system. Spain’s plans include growing the number of occupations considered within the country’s social protection legislation for cultural and creative workers.

Building inclusive access to welfare systems for artists makes economic sense. When we strengthen artists’ rights, we make creative work more attractive, boosting creativity and driving innovation in firms across the economy. But most of all, advancing the status of the artist is the right thing to do to level the playing field, and recognise their huge value to society.

Read more on the OECD work on Culture here.

Read our new report on Culture: “The Culture fix: creative people, places and industries“.

Junior Policy Analyst at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | + posts

Lucas Leblanc is a Policy Analyst within the OECD Local Economic and Employment Development Programme (LEED). Lucas has worked on a number of projects within LEED, including on local job creation and the cultural and creative sectors. Prior to the OECD, Lucas has had experience within the European Parliament and Washington DC-based international affairs think tanks. Lucas holds a B.A. in International Relations from the College of William & Mary in Virginia and a Master of European Affairs from SciencesPo Paris.