Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Freelancers aren't free!

Not everyone has time on their hands. Not everyone has the luxury of patience in this vast, interminable world. Not everyone’s plate is full. Not everyone has or rather can afford to reserve time for others, and even if they could they end up giving up what they could have done for themselves. That’s blunt, but the truth is nothing but blunt. As such it’s remarkable, monstrous, and even astounding, to see how those who get impatient at the slightest jolt in their schedules expect others to have hours and days of freedom on their hands.

Let’s get this straight. Freelancers aren’t free. They can write for hours and hours on some vague, confused topic and make it clear for the benefit of the reader, but they expect (as they should) some form of compensation. There are reasons why newspapers are missing out on good writers nowadays, after all, and one reason clearly is the way creative writers are being underwritten. Now “underwritten” is a strong word, but it takes a strong word to drive home an unpleasant point, so I will restate what I said: those who write and take away from their schedule even two hours of their time must be paid or in some way compensated.

Because compensation isn’t a privilege, it’s a birthright. By dedicating hours to a computer to type up an article you had to research for, you’re doing the publisher or editor a favour. The “exposure argument", which the above cartoon so brilliantly debunks, can get you only so far. Exposure isn’t going to pay through your rent, taxes, food, and married life. The argument will be given by those who sit on comfortable chairs and have everything at their beck and call. They get big bucks, we don’t. If that isn’t exploitation or deception, I don’t know what is.

In the West the freelancers are unionising. We are behind them because these freelancers, as an article in the New Republic points out, are contributors to digital media. We are behind them because forget our digital media, even our print media doesn’t pay us at times! Max Rivlin-Nadler, who wrote that article and is himself a freelancer, admits: “freelancers were never really meant to live entirely off of their earnings.” True. That makes our situation even more pathetic when considering how even print-media publishers and editors here refuse to pay us.

Birthrights shouldn’t be demanded for. They should be affirmed and accepted by the other party, by default. We don’t want to say “Pay us”! We want those to whom we write to bring up the subject of payments, to recognise that we have time on our hands but insofar as we are compensated for spending money, research, and brainpower on them. “Sri Lanka is a cultural desert,” Sir Ivor Jennings once observed, and notwithstanding my anti-imperialist sympathies I am with him there because we keep on rubbishing creativity and rewarding mediocrity. Even now.

In my experience so far, the best writers have emerged from outside the newspaper industry. And why? Because the best writers are fed up. Their salvation, as freelancers at least, lies in the magazine world or those various unpaid, volunteer sites which get them more exposure than the printed word. Yes, there was a time when writers dazzled us with their prose in newspapers – Regi Siriwardena, Ajith Samaranayake, Rajpal Abeynayake, Malinda Seneviratne, the list goes on but ends somewhere – but now the best prose stylists either have blogs or write to magazines. Dhanuka Bandara writes excellently, and he wrote to “The Nation” and “Ceylon Today”. But “The Nation” closed down and “Ceylon Today”, for some obscure reason, allowed him to go away. Why?

So to wrap up: don’t write for free. Don’t expect exposure to salvage you forever. The “exposure argument”, as I mentioned before, will be given by those who have the luxury of time and money on their hands, who get paid for the littlest thing they do and who get compensated for the extra mile they walk. We walk that extra mile too. About time we got recognised.

No, I’m not saying we should get unionised. But we should assert. That’s a first step. A necessary first step.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer pen for hire. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com