Cultural Workers Shouldn’t Pay for the COVID-19 Pandemic in NL

We are reposting this anonymous open letter meant to address Dutch cultural organisations, institutions of education and research, and government bodies. Its goal is to raise concerns regarding freelance and remote work during the COVID-19 emergency. Feel free to circulate, appropriate and adapt this text. Here’s the source:
We are freelancers working in schools, universities, art academies, museums and cultural organisations. Many of us are hired as freelancers not because we asked for it, but because this has become the default in the Netherlands. Coronavirus is now showing us the limits of freelancing. Precarity is becoming even more apparent. Often, we have regular and continuous labor relationships with our institutions: we are like employees, however we lack the same leverage and safety. We are part and parcel of the organisations we work for. We don’t deliver a service to these institutions, we are these institutions. The fictitious autonomy that was projected on us came out of the 2008 financial crisis, where budgets for education and culture were slashed, never to recover despite 10 years of significant economic growth. Precarity has been there for a long time, now it is just more visible.
As the pandemic escalates, strict countermeasures are introduced. Many events are cancelled while schools, universities and museums are now closed. While unavoidable and necessary, these measures also result in a significant loss of income for anyone working under such precarious conditions. Now these conditions are clearly revealed. And we shouldn’t be the ones paying for it.
For ZZP’ers (self-employed), the pandemic falls under category of “business risk”[1]. Well, fuck that. Cultural work is not our “business”. We didn’t choose to be a business, we never asked for the risk, so it shouldn’t be offloaded on us. This shift of structural responsibility to the individual is a neoliberal favourite and we should expose it for the fraud that it is.
As much as possible, we are asked to organise our work to be carried out remotely, while facing the anxiety and the mental load provoked by the current state of exception. We are asked to actively dedicate extra time and energy to keep things running during the emergency. But we need some guarantees from the cultural organisations and institutions we work for, and from the government.
We demand cultural organisations & art academies:

  • to accommodate and devise solutions to allow remote work or work from home, allowing for truly flexible ways to deal with the consequences of the pandemic (e.g. taking care of the elderly and kids). At the same time, performing remote work shouldn’t be the condition to be paid for a previously agreed plan.
  • to maintain agreements with the staff even if events, classes and lectures are cancelled or postponed. To make sure that despite any emergency measure, cultural workers are paid unconditionally.
  • to postpone lectures, classes and events only in agreement with the freelancer, as they might have other commitments.
  • to ensure that any measures deployed in this moment of crisis are not there to stay. e.g. online classes are a temporary solution to a measure where people are asked to stay home; when universities reopen, so too should normal classes.
  • to agree to accommodate these demands in written, official form.

When discussing remote work, we demand the cultural organisations & art academies:

  • to not consider it as the first concern right now.
  • to not see remote work as a condition for teachers to be paid.
  • to not make remote work mandatory for both teachers and students.
  • to consider the time students and staff need to spend with household members these days.
  • to not offload the research and testing of methods and tools for remote work solutions onto individual workers.
  • to keep in mind that predatory Big-tech industries will instrumentalise this crisis for their own gain. The current crisis shows our dependence on digital infrastructures. In order not to become fully dependent on them, it is important to talk about the alternatives to these offers which uncritically promote technology as a solution to everything. Neither students nor teachers should be required to open social media accounts or install software against their own will.
  • to ensure that any measures deployed are temporary.

If remote work is being organised, we demand:

  • to take into account the home situation of both students and staff, to not be blinded by the illusion that everyone can work and concentrate at home. This situation will be increasingly difficult for families to handle as more and more private and public locations, spaces, outlets, venues, shop, schools will be closing. Likewise, many may contract the virus or take care of someone who has contracted it.
  • to not impose synchronous work. Students and staff might not be able to show up at a specific time for anything, as they might have to prioritize their days differently. At the same time, asynchronicity shouldn’t mean that the workday exceeds the agreed boundaries. Bottom-up and considerate self-organisation should be prioritised over top-down managerial plans.
  • to not forget that internet connection is unstable and at times unavailable for some, which means that personal data-bundles need to be used. Also, to not forget how frustrating and counter-productive it can be to talk over a stuttering video connection.
  • to acknowledge the circumstances and turn remote work into an exercise of collective care taking for all. Sometimes this means to cancel classes, decrease workload and allow disconnection. This is more important than the continuation of the routine.

We demand the government:

  • to defer the payment of mortgages installments for unprotected cultural workers and precarious workers in general. This is already happening in Italy[2].
  • to support freelancers and students (who are often working on the side to pay their studies) with a “pandemic allowance” to still be able to afford the minimum requirements for stable living (rent, food, etc).

These demands do not only concern the welfare of cultural workers, but they are meant to preserve the quality of education and the cultural sector in the long run. What maintains these fields alive is the trust among the parties involved. Ignoring these demands means eroding that trust and therefore contributing to more atomised and individualised cultural organisations.
Some steps in the direction of our demands are already being taken: a majority in the House of Representatives proposed “a support package for the cultural sector” because of the corona crisis.[3] The Kunstenbond opened a website where freelancers in the cultural and creative sector can report their cancellations due to the corona virus.[4]
As previously mentioned, the current emergency has only made more apparent the precarity inherent in the education and cultural sector, where structural risk is often disproportionately shouldered by the individual. If the limits of such a system were not already apparent, this moment of crisis should allow us to reconsider it and foster the struggle against the flexibilization of working conditions with renewed urgency.