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Last year, a BoF Community Survey conducted in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak in Western Europe and North America found just 7 percent of respondents said their companies would continue to hire as planned pre-crisis, whereas 31 percent of freelance or contract-based work was able to continue as planned.
“Post-pandemic, I think lots of companies are going to be cautious when allocating resources. They are likely to prefer a system that allows them flexibility, so we might see less of a reliance on permanent employees,” says Alexandra Thompson, an employment lawyer and senior associate at Withers worldwide, which represents the likes of Moncler, Charlotte Tilbury, Anya Hindmarch and Soho House.
The “gig economy” — a labour market consisting of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs — was already a growing segment of the employment sector. A study by academics from Harvard, Princeton and NBER found that, of the jobs created between 2005 and 2015 in the US, 94 percent were temporary, on-call, contract or freelance. Approximately 150 million people in the US and Western Europe were working as independent contractors in 2018, according to Harvard Business Review.
Contract work typically provides greater flexibility for both employer and worker: the former is able to tap into expertise when necessary, without the expense of hiring a permanent employee; the latter has more control over their schedule, client-base and salary. However, the market will statistically become more competitive for shorter contracts. “I do think it could get tougher for people to secure work,” adds Thompson.
“It’s a numbers game,” says Faith Cummings, an editor currently working in branded content with bylines at Vogue.com, Teen Vogue and Glamour. “You’re going to have to apply for many jobs before you get an interview, so be vigilant and be really active with it.”
Flexible employment also removes the job security of permanent positions, like health insurance, statutory sick pay, automated retirement funds and student loan repayments.
With flexible contract work likely on the rise, and new cohorts of professionals entering the job market due to industry disruption, BoF Careers breaks down how to navigate contract work — from what to look out for in the fine print to tax advice, payment terms and negotiation tactics.
Understand Your Employment Status
Thompson notes a “dramatic change” in the types of contracts that clients are using over the past 8 years, especially in the creative sector: “The fashion industry relies heavily on flexible contracts and freelance work, and flexible contracts can take a number of different forms.”
First, it is essential to scrutinise what contract type is applied for that role. “It’s important to get to the bottom of what relationship you’re going to have [with the employer],” says Thompson. “A fixed-term employee will benefit from sick pay, holiday pay, pension, family rights. Those who are self-employed won’t attract those rights.”
“Freelance” is not a recognised label under UK employment law — it has no agreed definition, which can make it a challenge to protect.
Meanwhile, the US has coined a new term, “permalancer.” According to Forbes, a permalancer is a combination of: self-employed; has ongoing contracts; owns an LLC; is considered to be in a “consulting” role; with hourly or part-time positions. Cummings more succinctly refers to it as “freelance in perpetuity.”
However, the logistics around rolling contracts while still classified as “self-employed” can put you at a disservice. “If you are doing the same work over a longer period of time, it does start to look like an employment relationship. An individual looking down that lens would have to question why they’re doing it. Is that trade-off worth it?” says Thompson.
If you are signing up to a zero-hour contract, or your work is part-time, ensure you negotiate a minimum number of hours or set working days from the start — it is harder to change retrospectively.
Scrutinise Your Contract
Contracts can be lengthy documents drafted using inaccessible language, which can make for challenging reading. However, having formed a contractual relationship with an entity, unless you fulfil and adhere to the agreed terms you will breach contract and potentially become liable for the financial damages incurred by the other party.
As dull as the process might be, or as excited as you might be about a project, you must know what you are agreeing to, and as a result, you must dedicatedly assess the terms of your agreement.
Don’t let these big companies pressure you into making decisions quicker than you should.
“I’ve had a couple of experiences where I’ve been too excited, jumped in and then it’s been way too much work or underpaid,” explains Alicia Robinson, a former freelance knitwear designer for Kanye West’s Yeezy, Missoni and A-Cold-Wall, who launched her label, AGR Knit, in 2019. “Don’t let these big companies pressure you into making decisions quicker than you should. Ask other people for advice.”
Verbal agreements can also be legally enforceable, but are harder to prove — so, to cover yourself, any agreed terms around payment, hours, benefits or usage rights, should be recorded in a contract.
Within the contract itself, scrutinise complex language, unspecified terms and carefully secreted information in a “miscellaneous” segment.
“If you are not sure about certain points in your contract, go back [to the employer] and ask a tonne of questions,” says Cummings. Thompson adds: “Ask the company to talk you through it. If they can’t, there’s probably something wrong.”
Legal counsel can be too expensive for many starting out, but often agencies offer support. through legal advisors on image rights, intellectual property and the contract paperwork.
“Some contracts surprised me where it said I can’t talk about the project or post the final work for X number of months. That’s actually quite common,” says 3D designer Jason Ebeyer, whose clients include Vogue Italia, Common & Sense and Huda Beauty.
Contracts should not only stipulate your usage rights, but the company’s too. “Whether it’s just in the UK, worldwide, on Instagram or billboards, you have to work out where they are going to put [your work],” says Robinson. This might also impact how you should charge.
When entering into new employment, the last thing on your mind is then leaving that employment. However, if you choose to terminate your contract, further restrictions may apply. For example, it might stipulate you cannot go to a competitor for 6 or 12 months after that contract has finished. “One of the biggest advantages of flexible contracts is the ability to grow your network and experience with a range of brands in a much shorter period than a permanent employment contract would allow,” says Thompson.
Ask the company to talk you through your contract. If they can’t, there’s probably something wrong.
“One of the clauses I would often try and negotiate [into a contract] would be rights when you leave. Can you keep your portfolio of work?” says Thompson. “In fashion, if you leave midway through a season and you’ve already done a certain amount of work, what happens? Will your name still be put to that collection, even though you haven’t finished it? You might not want your name to be put to it.”
You must dissect your contracts carefully, from payment terms — is there an agreed payment schedule? — to travel expenses and work visas. Some contracts also stipulate you cannot continue external collaborations, or that everything you produce in your working hours belongs to the company.
Weigh Budgets and Expected Output
“As a veteran, you know that [some talent] should probably refuse the job because the budget is not reflecting the level of their work, but you have to have experience to understand that,” says Barbara Blanchard, casting director and founder of talent agency Black Artists Management (BAM), which launched in 2020 to help young diverse talent.
“After 30 years in the industry, things are still difficult for people like me who have credentials, but still don’t necessarily have the access we should at the level of our skills,” she says. Learning how to assert yourself takes practice and will improve with experience. If you are struggling, an agent can manage those more challenging negotiations on your behalf — or ask friends, colleagues or professionals for advice.
“Covid-19 is a great excuse. I understand the economic context is not easy, but it’s unfair to take advantage of freelancers because they need the money,” adds Blanchard. “It’s like David against Goliath. I’m ready to say ‘no’ to a contract if I think it’s not matching the expectations of my artists.”
Creative industries are competitive to enter, which means upcoming talent can feel they must compromise fees to attract clients. Companies may try to leverage an unbalanced dynamic to benefit their own interests and as more people enter the world of contract work, there might be added pressure to accept unfavourable terms or lower your fees.
It’s like David against Goliath. I’m ready to say ‘no’ to a contract if I think it’s not matching the expectations of my artists.
“One of the hardest things [starting out] was having that confidence to say, ‘no.’ If someone didn’t have the budget, I would offset the budget with a [social media] credit. You cannot pay your bills with exposure,” says Ebeyer.
You can also stipulate financial terms to ensure your time is respected. Ebeyer lays out “penalties” in his contracts for missed review deadlines, adding an incentive for clients to send feedback on time.
Robinson alternatively adds a few days either side of a deadline to protect herself in the likelihood of any setbacks. “You have to charge for meetings — an hour on Zoom is still working,” she adds.
Consider Using an Agency
There are pros and cons to signing with an agency when looking for contract work — agents are an added expense, an extra relationship to manage and remove complete autonomy. However, agencies can help you manage professional relationships, find work and offer a support network.
“It helps to have someone on your side who’s got some skin in the game,” says Ebeyer, who uses an agency to remove stress-inducing elements of his work. “I get ridiculous anxiety with chasing invoices and worrying someone’s going to ghost on a bill. It helps to have someone to go after it for you.”
“It’s always reassuring and strengthening to be within a collective,” says Blanchard. “The idea is also to be proactive, not to wait for contracts or projects.”
Open Tools to Calculate Taxes
If you are undertaking short-term contracts or working freelance, you need to be on top of your finances — and how you are employed will dictate how you are taxed.
You can clarify this with your employer, agent or use online tools that assess your employment status and subsequent tax requirements. Thompson recommends CEST — check employment status for tax tools — in the UK. Alternatively, the Internal Revenue Service offers online tools and resources to help you understand the process in the US. Then, when it comes to preparing and filing your taxes, recommended apps include Turbo Tax, QuickBooks and Taxfiler.
Alternatively, if you are earning enough money, an accountant might be a worthwhile investment. They can also help you manage savings, plan a pension pot and any other future financial safeguarding.
“Your accountant doesn’t need to understand your art, [but be] switched on enough to understand what you’re doing,” says Ebeyer. “So many of them are like, ‘I’m just going to say you work in retail.’ Then you put your deductions through and it’s like, ‘Why is a retail assistant buying a $15,000 computer?’”