Mar 21 by Max Monday
It seems as though one of the only times I get to see my friends as of late is when I'm volunteering. At the moment I'm a part of a collective that runs Red Gate Arts Society, a community events centre in East Vancouver – we meet every Monday night to discuss the future art exhibitions, concerts and goings-on we want to have at our establishment. There, I see familiar friendly faces: the couple that invited me to be a part of Red Gate, buddies that I made while attending and working events, and art-loving pals I've recruited for the team. This week, as the meeting wrapped up, I packed up my things as most people headed to the back to smoke and socialize. Jeremy, an old friend and new Red Gate recruit, stopped me on my way out.
“It feels like I never see you around here anymore. Do you want to grab a coffee sometime?”
Innocent enough, right? I pondered a time that would work best for me, and came up with sometime in five or six weeks from now. His eyes widened.
“You really plan that far in advance?” he asked. Up to this point it didn't occur to me that that was weird. “Don't you have any time in between then where you could sneak a coffee?” I shook my head. “I guess I'm just really busy.” He gave me a pursed smile and a hug, said he understood, and told me to let him know if any of my time frees up.
As far as I'm aware, being this busy isn't an anomaly for people like me: I'm a freelancer by trade, meaning that I take odd jobs producing radio and podcasts. In order to keep myself afloat, I'm constantly scouring email listservs and job posting websites looking for work, all the while completing projects I already have on my plate. My day starts at 6 in the morning, and involves the aforementioned perpetual job-hunting, along with coordinating interviews, transcribing and editing audio, writing scripts, and producing projects until about 9 at night. If I'm lucky, I get an hour or two to sneak away and exercise at the gym, or to see my (extremely patient, extremely supportive) live-in partner before he's asleep. If that sounds hectic and exhausting, let me assure you, it is.
I'll be honest with you, this is sort of a life I chose for myself. Once upon a time, I had a full-time (albeit a repeating 1-year contract) position at a campus radio station, but I left after I found out that the grant that had funded my “stable” position there for the previous 3 years was “taking a break” for four months, so the station would have no way to pay me during that time. So, like an estimated 2.18 other Canadians that year, I dove head-first into the gig economy. I was added to a handful of “fill-in” producer lists at reputable radio stations, and I picked up work from companies that needed temporary audio production work. At the time, the idea of freelancing seemed, well, freeing. I could make my own hours, I could work from home if I wanted to, and the flexibility of projects meant I could get a wider range of experience in my craft. I've come to learn that those freedoms come with a price, literally and figuratively. Now, I was the one who had to coordinate my schedule and that of my client's project; I was paying a monthly subscription to the expensive software I needed in order to do my work; if I got sick, it was me who had to pick up the bill (thank goodness I live in Canada, where we have access to free-ish healthcare). I have become a worker that needs to pay out of my own pocket to properly do my job, and I'm running myself into the ground doing it.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm not the only one whose work week looks like this: it's estimated that 45% of Canadians will be “self-employed” by next year, and job insecurity woes have made their way into more industries than you'd think. University of Toronto assistant professor Arif Jetha has written about how “precarious work” conditions, like the ones many freelancers face, is literally making us sick. Last year, Labour Minister Patty Hadju mentioned that decades-old labour standards would be “revamped” by Labour Day of this year, but from the perspective of someone who's in the thick of it right now, that promise seems a little abstract and a little late to the party.
Don't get me wrong, I love what I do for a living: I've always been interested in sound, and I would take freelancing as a radio producer over a more clerical, less creative position any day of the week. What I want to leave behind is the idea that “freelancing is the bright-and-shiny future of the utopian workforce”. When freelancing becomes the only type of work in an industry, it weighs on the worker: for me, my hours of sleep have taken a toll, my home and social life is becoming strained, and the only thing I have to show for it is just making enough to pay the rent at the end of the month. When I'm not at my mental and physical peak, I can't do my job properly, and both I and the client pay. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this. Over the next year, I'm excited to see how legislation changes to protect workers like me, but what I truly hope happens soon is that the clients I work for see that providing stability for freelancers and precarious workers indicates that their business prioritizes compassion, and that makes for better productivity all-around.