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Phil Willmott

The Race is on to Safeguard the Income of UK Theatre Workers. Show Your Support now

Equity Most people who work in theatre - creatives, performers, technicians even critics etc - do so on a self-employed basis.

In a similar way to builders we hire ourselves out on a project by project basis and are paid an agreed fee for the duration of the job.

We seldom become full time, permanent employees of an organisation with the legal protection that brings and we have no access to sick pay or a pension unless we set these funds up ourselves, independently of any employer, and opt to pay in.

Instead of having our tax deducted from our payments at source the UK tax system regards us all as individual businesses, we present our income to the inland revenue once a year documenting our expenses and the tax due is then calculated for us to pay. This system is known as PAYE (Pay As You Earn).

It was quite possible to earn a living in this precarious way – until the current lock-down.

Even though we pay the same amount of tax as those whose tax payments are deducted at source and paid by employers we’re currently being unfairly penalised by the UK Government.

In recent emergency legislation they’ve introduced a raft of measures which ensure the wages of permanent employees are safe-guarded whilst PAYE workers can only access the universal credit pay outs available to the unemployed. And there’s tens of thousands of pounds difference per annum.

In the theatre this means that, for instance, a performer in a West End show will have recently gone from earning a healthy income to qualifying for virtually nothing over-night and being unable to pay their bills and put food on the table.

I contacted a few theatre professionals to have them explain a little more about what the current crisis meant to them. (Names have been changed) Firstly here’s the wording of a letter all performers have recently been encouraged to send to the treasury:

“I pay tax like anyone on a PAYE contract, and yet someone on a PAYE contract could access around £25,000 of support over a year and yet I could only access around £4,800 over the same time period, and that is only if I actually qualify for universal credit in the first place. This is deeply unfair to self employed workers. I appreciate the deferment of the July tax bill, but this is not even close to enough to be able to survive on. Self employed people often have large overheads they have to maintain to keep their business ticking over to a time they can start it again.”

It proposes the government considers a “Norway style system, where the government give grants to the self employed that equate to 80% of their average yearly income over the past three years”.

John, an actor, told me -

“I’ve been living extremely frugally for the last few years to save money to facilitate having a child without overly burdening the NHS but I am now expected to use those savings to pay for my vastly inflated London rent, like many in London my rent is between 50 & 65% of pre-tax income. Without further support the sheer renting costs will result in many self employed people in the south east defaulting on rental payments they cannot subsequently make up. The immediate and long term financial repercussions on the state of self-employed people having to become unemployed will be vast.

Sally, a choreographer, says -

“It’s so disheartening/upsetting/depressing to feel that we have been doing everything within our power to simply try and put ourselves in the best possible position for the future (which for the self employed is always going to be uncertain) only to feel like we are being punished for doing so”.

From Mary, an opera singer and music teacher –

“My accountant says Universal Credit is less than £400 a month and my basic bills are £700!! There is nothing really in place for the self employed. Why are some people getting 80% of their salaries which in some cases is a fortune and the self employed get £94 a week?!! We’re not unemployed! Our livelihoods have just stopped. I used the eligibility calculator on the Gov site last night and it said I was entitled to £0”.

And from Nellie, another actor –

I'm a millennial...we don't own properties... rent hasn’t been frozen and universal credit is 94 quid a week.. Could you live on it? Meanwhile all the bills are frozen in Germany, Portugal & the Netherlands. It is now against the law to evict anyone for non payment of rent but I see that as eviction postponement, this is why we need rent freeze. They went for mortgage freeze first to protect the landlords, they are still protecting the interest of those relatively well off. I think thousands of people will be homeless once the eviction ban is lifted”*.

Now it’s fair to say the UK government is aware of the challenges facing the self-employed. There’s a lot of us putting them under a lot of pressure however despite daily promises that they’ll be announcing a solution, nothing has been forthcoming and we keep being told that it’s really complicated.

I'm not sure why, if they can tax us with ruthless efficiency, why can’t they pay it back as effectively in a time of crisis?

Anyway you can help keep them under pressure to help theatre workers and all your other self-employed friends by signing a petition.

You’ll find plenty on-line but I recommend this one as being the most direct and likely to have an impact on the theatre industry as it’s being co-ordinated by our union, Equity: