That is just part of being able to do my cool job

Working conditions and interest formulation in self-enterprising sectors in the Netherlands

Wike M. Been, University of Amsterdam

Future projections of how the labour market is going to function imagine workers to be highly networked individuals, running their personal ‘self’ as an enterprise and collaborating within temporary project coalitions. The creative industries are often seen as the test ground where these kinds of models are already implemented, as they are characterized by project-based work, portfolio careers, temporary collaborations, a high self-employment rate and a centrality of entrepreneurship. Even though some see this as the model of work for the future, others point out the often low job quality for workers in the creative industries. With the exception of the view lucky individuals who ‘score a hit’, work in the creative industry is in many instances precarious and insecure, with relatively low pay, high volatility and inadequate access to social security, so is reported in the literature. Accordingly, it presents serious problems in terms of working conditions. Nevertheless, at the same time it is reported that many perceive high job quality regardless these poor working conditions. Poor working conditions not necessarily coinciding with an experience of low job quality is in the literature explained by a potential trade-off taking place between different aspects of job quality such as pay against a high level of autonomy and creativity, aspects that are expected to be highly valued by those working in the creative industries. This might also have consequences for the way workers formulate their interests posing a potential challenge for trade unions to organize employees. In this study we focus on understanding the potential trade-off taking place between working conditions and what this means for how workers formulate their interests.

We depart from typical individual and industry characteristics. Workers in the creative industries are often described as high intrinsically motivated and having a great passion for what they do. The highly intrinsically motivated creatives are willing to compromise on their wages and working conditions in exchange for the opportunity to do the work they aspire to do, so the argument goes in the literature. If it is seen as a price that has to be paid to be able to do this type of work and workers see it as an inescapable characteristic and thus have a priori expectations about the working conditions upon entering the sector (and decide it is worth it), working conditions are removed from being topics of conflict in the workplace and enter the realm of individual decision making. This in turn makes it less likely that they will argue for better conditions both individually and collectively. In addition, in the hit-driven and networked labour markets characterized by portfolio careers, failure or success –also in terms of income- becomes highly personal and one’s own responsibility. Again, when it is perceived a personal responsibility, workers are unlikely to argue for better conditions.

Even though the creative industries are often addressed as one industry, there is actually quite some variation between and within its different subsectors. In order to be able to take variation into account, we systematically compare the graphic design industry and the games industry in the Netherlands. Both industries are characterized by traits of the labour market of the future. Neither industry has a collective agreement in place. Nevertheless, the organization of work seems to vary quite a bit, with many freelance workers in the graphic design industry whereas most workers in the games industry are employees. Semi-structured interviews were held with employees, freelance workers and employers in both industries (25 interviews in total), complemented with interviews at the institutional level (15 interviews).

Preliminary results show that there is quite some income variation with the highest volatility among starting freelance workers in the graphic design industry and starting entrepreneurs and Indie game developers in the games industry. One of the explanations lies indeed on the level of typical worker characteristics of those working in the creative industries: by being a freelance worker or having one’s own Indie game company, workers have large autonomy over their work: something that they value highly. However, the other side of it is that they often also have no other option than to work as a freelance worker or to start their own company if they want to work in the industry (something that they want badly because of their intrinsic motivation for the work), because there are so few employee positions available for the number of people interested (oversupply of labour). In the graphic design industry this related to the organization of the work: a large part of the industry exists out of freelance workers, whereas in the games industry this is caused by it being still a small industry, although growing, compared to the number of people that graduate from game related educational tracks.

Whether income volatility is perceived as problematic depends highly on the safety net workers perceive: if they have back up options, for example ‘hotel mama’, a partner with a steady income or regard the basic social security schemes sufficient to cover their costs of living; they do not regard their low income problematic. For these workers, the high job quality caused by other aspects of the work, such as high autonomy, possibility for self-realization and creativity, are more important. But even when workers perceive it as problematic, they often see it as a given tribute of working in the sector. It is therefore perceived as their ‘own choice’ and something they can only change by making their company successful not as something they can change by collective organization. Trade unions and professional organizations recognize this and try to reach out to workers by offering services.