From massive layoffs to media closures, from precarity to news deserts, journalists all over the world are suffering the fallout from a pandemic that is having serious repercussions across the profession. In this extremely volatile context, freelance journalists have been in the most vulnerable position, losing work, seeing their income drastically reduced, with travel restrictions putting an end to planned reporting trips and with little or no social protection or paid sick leave if they got the virus.
On top of that, freelancers often struggle to organize themselves to enhance their power, in a sector characterised by a high -and growing- rate of freelance workers who have little experience in collective bargaining and who unions have often struggled to locate and recruit. Fortunately, this is changing.
Organizing is key to freelancers’ survival
Since the beginning of the pandemic, organizing with unions has emerged as the key way for freelance journalists to cope with the economic crisis unleashed across the media. One of the main problems freelancers have faced is access to public aid and financial support.
In the United Kingdom, the #ForgottenFreelances campaign, was launched by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to support the rights of the approximately 3 million freelancers excluded from the UK government's financial assistance to those whose businesses affected by the pandemic.
“The NUJ played a major role in getting assistance extended to those who were excluded because they had recently started freelancing when the pandemic hit”, a member of the NUJ’s freelance branch told the IFJ.
A similar situation applied in Australia, where the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) pushed the authorities to broaden the Australian public financial support plan to freelancers, as was the case in France for journalists-pigistes (SNJ, SNJ-CGT, CFDT-journalistes) or in Germany, where a survey by the German Journalists Association (DJV) revealed the urgent need for financial support for freelance media workers. In Spain, all IFJ affiliates pushed the authorities to include freelancers in the national and regional aid programs and succeeded in ensuring photojournalists could work in football stadiums.
While governments tend to forget about self-employed journalists, many individual freelancers didn’t know how to apply for social or unemployment benefits even though they were entitled to do so. This problem was addressed by the National Writers Union (NWU) in the United States, who organized an emergency webinar on how to apply for pandemic unemployment assistance. The NUJ in the UK also launched an online platform gathering all the available support and resources for freelances whose income was reduced because of Covid-19.
Other unions went beyond and mobilized to ensure the most precarious people in the media sector could obtain aid. The AJP in Belgium negotiated with regional governments the launch of a fund and supported 275 freelance journalists in 2020, to the tune of nearly € 300,000.
Collective fighting for fair rates
In moments of crisis, it is fundamental for unions to raise awareness among freelancers on their rights to access social protection schemes and unemployment benefits so no one is left behind. But it is also crucial to fight for fair rates for those continuing to work. With the pandemic, media all over the world adopted cost cutting policies and lowered rates for freelance journalists to unacceptable levels.
The NWU’s Freelance Solidarity Project, a union organizing effort that is built around challenging individual publications to publicly commit to uphold certain standards and pushing for freelance rights, has already secured public agreements from a number of titles and is currently in talks with more media.
Providing physical and psychological protection
Apart from the economic and social crisis, freelance journalists have also been the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Most freelancers didn’t have an employer providing work insurance and protective equipment and had to report on the frontline without protection. If infected, few had rights to paid sick leave. For those few traveling abroad, it has been almost impossible to find travel insurance that would cover their medical costs in case of covid infection.
The Asociación Nacional de Periodistas (ANP) in Peru, where up to 70% of local journalists are self-employed, addressed this issue and provided protection kits for its freelance affiliates reporting on the front line.
The ANP also implemented an emotional support program for journalists who also needed psychological help.
IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown once again that the organization and collective struggle of media workers really does make a difference – protecting income, health and rights. IFJ affiliates are making huge efforts to protect freelance journalists, who are in a more vulnerable position as governments all too often leave them out of their public support programs and social protection. We praise the efforts of all those unions who have taken up this fight for freelances and invite all IFJ affiliates to be inspired to ensure there are no forgotten freelances. A freelance journalists’ place is in the union”.