Slovenian cultural and creative workers: from feelings to facts!

AUTHOR / Eva Matjaž

Between 17 March and 11 April 2022, the fourth survey in a little over two years examining the working and living conditions of workers in the Slovenian cultural and creative sectors was carried out. The sample comprised 1,005 workers. As on the first three occasions, the survey targeted all workers, regardless of their work status: students, contract workers, the self-employed in culture, private entrepreneurs, those employed in companies and private institutions, associations, and cooperatives, and those employed in public institutions as well as unregistered workers active in at least one of the 21 subfields of the two sectors.

Taboo topics and unethical practices

“Is there anything more to be said about precarity that we don’t already know? Things have been so clear for so long that writing about it is becoming wearisome,” writes Nika Kozinc in the editorial of the insightful 2018 issue of the Journal for the Critique of Science, Imagination, and New Anthropology, entitled Culture, A Private Non-Profit Organization.

Hardly anyone working in the cultural and creative sectors has not, at one time or another, questioned their choice of profession which, in addition to being interesting and often fulfilling, brings with it a number of survival-related dilemmas. The crisis of a decade ago and the COVID-19 epidemic which, despite being in the background at the moment, is already in its third year, are making workers’ decisions on whether to persevere or leave the industry even more difficult. Today, every other colleague is considering leaving. And our discussions often feel just like Kozinc says, that perhaps nothing really new can be said about precarity. Not least because our industry is a pioneer when it comes to precarity, the bohemian expression “freelancer” having existed in culture before flexibilization became a popular mantra in the private sector.

We learn everything about the extremely awful conditions of (independent) labour in the two sectors over a glass of beer, and by the third glass the conversation moves onto the inevitable taboo topics: the unethical practices exacerbating the already difficult conditions of production. Our industry is very small and closely intertwined. Exposing practices of exploitation is a major risk for cultural workers, as doors to many public as well as independent institutions may be closed to them when they are suddenly regarded as problematic. As a result, many things “that everyone knows” are only discussed in intimate circles. Figures show that being underpaid is such a common experience that it should be both addressed and eradicated systemically.

The initial purpose of our now three-year study was to carry out diagnostics to determine the extent of damage caused by the COVID-19 epidemic in our two sectors. In the course of four surveys, numerous interim debates and deep reflection, it was becoming clear that focusing merely on the impact of the epidemic on the work and life of workers in the cultural and creative sectors would not suffice. The wounds in the two sectors run much deeper and were not by any means inflicted by the epidemic alone – this latest crisis merely accentuated them further. The chronic precariousness of the two sectors, the grinding poverty and – discussed here for the first time – the disturbing practices of public cultural institutions are all problems predating the virus. And yes, everyone in the two sectors knows (first-hand) practically everything about all of these issues. But what is new in our study is that, for the first time, these problems are being translated into numbers, so that someone who is not in our circle of confidants but feels the responsibility and has the (political) power to tackle these problematic practices can put themselves in the shoes of workers in the cultural and creative sectors.

The epidemic of the working poor

In spring 2022, the situation in the two sectors was worse than it was a year ago. The combination of the epidemic and an unfavourable government has pushed people in culture, particularly independent workers, to the brink. The Slovenian cultural and creative sectors seem to have found themselves in the Dark Ages. Our key findings are as follows:

1. Despite the epidemic coming to an end, the crisis in the two sectors has worsened. More than one-half of workers do not have enough work to make a living at the moment. Four out of ten private entities consider their business operations this year to be poor to very poor.

2. The epidemic of poor workers is concealed by the support of family and friends. Every other worker is thinking of leaving, with nearly one-tenth of workers already having left the industry. More than one half of workers could not afford to replace their most important working tool immediately if it broke. Every other worker has a net salary of up to 1,000 euros. The most precarious workers are paid the least. Employment positions in the public sector have received the best salaries throughout the duration of this survey. Less than one-fifth of workers come from a disadvantaged family background. Two-thirds of homeowners would not be able to afford a home without the support of their loved ones.

3. Considerable dissatisfaction with the previous government – and a long list of tasks for the new government. As in previous surveys, the majority of workers this year gave the outgoing government one of the lowest two grades – 1 or 2. Once again, the deep-seated belief in the sector’s high degree of dependence on public funding must be rejected, as merely two out of ten entities in the cultural and creative sectors have predominantly public funding based on their self-assessment. Workers expect the new government to carry out a substantial reform of ministerial practices towards greater professionalism and inclusion, to repair the damage caused by the many and varied political attacks of the past two-year period, and to restore the sector’s reputation. They point out that the damage sustained by the two sectors combined during the epidemic requires a swift identification of the most affected fields and an implementation of concrete solutions for an effective regeneration. The workers demand that the basic existential problems of the growing population of poor workers be addressed immediately.

4. The disconcerting practices of public cultural institutions. Most respondents agree that public cultural institutions did not do enough for the workers and the industry during the epidemic, as they remained silent instead of standing up to the despotic destruction of the two sectors. One of the most disconcerting findings of the study is that four out of ten workers did not receive payment or consider to have received (very) poor payment for their last job/project for a public cultural institution. Only one-fifth of workers dare refuse an unpaid job. The workers fear that if they refused an unpaid job they would not be considered for a potential paid job in the future, nor would they received the necessary references they need to renew their status of self-employed cultural worker. The list of jobs that are performed for public institutions free of charge suggests that, if all these unpaid activities in one public institution were pooled together, the institution could produce a project entirely for free.

5. The epidemic is changing people’s work habits. More than one-half of workers are less effective compared to the pre-epidemic period. Despite the suspension of measures, more workers work from home in 2022 than before the epidemic. Even though activities have increasingly been returning to normal since spring 2022, four out of ten concerts and one-third of shows, performances, and exhibitions have still been cancelled, postponed, or suspended. Despite the majority of measures being suspended, certain activities still take place online, i.e. conferences and small education events, project presentations and meetings, consulting, and mentorship.

Eliminating poverty, labour exploitation, and power cliques

Advocacy organisations in Slovenia are already drafting calls, detailed lists, and recommendations for the incoming ministerial team, identifying the concrete issues to be addressed immediately after the difficult period of the COVID-19 and authoritarian plague. Instead of specific actions, we wish to draw attention to three topics that should guide the transformation of the industry: eliminating poverty, labour exploitation, and bypassing power cliques.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Statistics show that every other link in the chain of workers in the cultural and creative sectors is weak. Every other link could not afford to replace their work equipment if it broke. Every other link earns up to 1,000 euros per month, which is only barely above – or even below – the poverty line. Every other link cannot live a decent life without the help of their loved ones, particularly in the time of growing inflation, the energy crisis and more. Most of these weakest links are precarious workers in the private, independent part of the industry. However, their contribution in terms of content is essential to the industry’s operation. It is a paradox that many stronger links in the chain are highly dependent on their production, yet they are often their biggest exploiters.

Unethical collaboration practices are the industry’s original sin. This sin was not caused by the COVID-19 crisis, nor the right-wing government; these exploitation practices are ingrained in the very essence of the way public cultural institutions work. Public institutions provide poor or zero payment for 40% of the outsourced work performed by artists and other profiles. In so doing, they are violating Article 82b of the Exercising of the Public Interest in Culture Act (ZUJIK) without proper punishment. The exploited do not resist, workers put up with the unfair monetary (non-)exchange for the price of acquiring references that are essential to maintaining their status. The paradox of unpaid labour is all the greater given the increasingly prevailing mindset of having artists make money on the market, as such efforts inevitably fail when they come into contact with their first client – public cultural institutions that, instead of attaching a proper value to a work of art, force people to work for free and, in so doing, send a dangerous message as authorities in the field to the general public or to the market about the unreasonableness of paying for art.

The issues of poverty and labour exploitation in the two sectors cannot be resolved without also identifying the (in)formal power cliques. While the unlimited terms of management positions in the public part of the cultural and creative sectors can enable a stable and continuous operation at a high level, it may also promote only certain collaborations and the exposure of only certain topics. Relying on the responsible self-limitation of managers is not producing the desired effects; systemic regulation is needed in order to open up public cultural institutions. Furthermore, only two out of ten private entities in the two sectors enjoy predominantly public funding, which debunks the myth about artists being dependent on the state, and instead points to the inaccessibility of funding. Measures must be introduced to correct economic, generational, social, and other inequalities in the two sectors. Measures must be introduced to free the two sectors from the grip of poverty and provide these workers with decent working conditions and fair payment schemes.

Let’s start with the basics. Let’s ensure payment for creative labour!