More than just a passion: Protecting today’s freelance artists

Many freelance artists are unsatisfied with the lack of government support, and are asking for secured benefits and welfare protection.

The biggest challenge for artists has always been turning their talents into sustainable livelihoods. With minimal initiative from government units and private companies to bolster the creative economy, Filipino creatives lack avenues that will expand the horizons of where their art can take them. And while freelance work and the benefits that come with it allow artists to put a price on their passion, it doesn’t promise the consistency of regular desk jobs.

Because of this, the plight of freelance artists in the Philippines heavily weighs on the decision between pursuing their dream and having a steady flow of income. Jennifer Bonto, executive director of the Artists’ Welfare Project, Inc. (AWPI), relays a comment a sculptor once told her, “When [artists] are able to do their art…[they’re] happy. Pero, if it doesn’t bring money, nagsusuffer ‘yung pamilya.”

(But if it doesn’t bring money, one’s family suffers.)

In a country with low labor costs and an even lower appreciation for creative work, artists find themselves clipping their wings before they even get a chance to fly truly.

Outside the lines

The starving artist trope is one that encumbers the freelance industry–but where this myth ends is where the realities of these artists begin. A common occurrence among freelancers is how people devalue their work. For example, freelance singer Kiyana Bongat (I, AB-CAM) started self-releasing music in 2021. But despite having released two songs and an archive of unreleased drafts, she shares, “It kind of makes me unmotivated whenever people don’t take my music seriously.”

Further, many people from within and outside the industry often discourage—or even ridicule—virtuosos from taking the arts as a career path. “Art [has] always [been] overlooked because [people] think it’s impractical…It sucks to hear those kinds of things,” Bongat furthers, revealing her plans to abandon her freelancing to find a “more professional” line of work in the future.

Unfortunately, those who do stay on the field face a myriad of problems. Most freelancers are either underpaid or not paid on time–if at all. “Gusto [ng client ng] magandapero hindi siya magbabayad ng malaki,” Bonto sighs. This is evident among those who use guilt on freelancers to lower the asking price, especially if the artist is a close friend of the client. Bonto explains that this is common among freelance wedding singers and graphic artists who receive less pay after finishing their clients’ duties. “Kukunin nalang [ng artist] ‘yon, kasi [baka] pupunta [‘yung client] sa iba.”

(The client wants the art to be beautiful, but they won’t pay a big price…So the artist just accepts the money because the client might go to another artist.)

Worse, freelancers are devoid of several benefits found in typical contractual jobs. One such example is proper health insurance, with many artists in Bonto’s circle needing medical assistance. Retirement security is also an issue; she stresses, “Ang artista or craftsman, kailangan magtrabaho hanggang mamatay kasi wala siyang retirement benefits.”

(An artist or craftsman needs to work until they die because they don’t have any retirement benefits.)

More recently, the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s lack of documentation on informal artists has precluded them from receiving welfare aid under both Bayanihan acts, with only 1,000 artists receiving aid out of the 5,000 who applied, Bonto recounts. With all these in mind, freelancers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with Bongat reiterating, “I don’t think artists should be dismissed just like that.”

Vestiges of hope

While legislations that help in the protection of local art exist—such as the National Cultural Heritage Law, the criminalization of art forgery, and implementation of art curricula in schools—freelance artists are out of the question. “[These] laws were enacted to [merely] cover the care and preservation of different kinds of cultural materials and traditions,” Ayala Museum Senior Manager for Exhibitions and Collections Aprille Tijam points out.

Due to this, AWPI’s directors took the initiative to raise funds for struggling creatives themselves. As an organization dedicated to protecting the welfare of artists, AWPI delivers what the government lacks by regularly giving aid to struggling artists—even those living in typhoon-struck areas and informal housing. Bonto celebrates how donations go a long way, “Sobra silang (affected artists) grateful,” citing the joy of many artists affected by Typhoon Ulysses last December 2020 they gave aid to. “Malaking bagay ‘yung P2,000.”

(They were so grateful. Two thousand pesos was a lot to them.)

Yet, the predicament of independent artists shouldn’t only be the concern of mass-driven initiatives. “The government should find ways to promote freelancers more,” Bongat suggests. “We deserve equal treatment and services from [whichever] administration.”

With that, Tijam implores, “Implementing bodies should conduct sessions to discuss these laws and offer a platform for clarifications and conversations.” On the flip side,  the artistic community should also demand protection laws to transpire. This is where AWPI’s true initiatives step in: fighting for pro-artist legislative proposals to Congress. As Bonto emphasizes, “Policies, bills, [and] laws [should] facilitate justice. Kung ano nararapat ng isang tao, [dapat] nabibigay.”

(What a person deserves should be given.)

One of their objectives is to lobby for the Freelance Workers Protection Act, which seeks to ensure fair welfare provisions for its stakeholders. The same is true for the Eddie Garcia Bill, another piece of legislation AWPI advocates for. Named after the actor who suffered a fatal accident during a television taping, the bill provides clear stipulations on written contracts, working hours, payments, and the safety of artists. Fortunately, both bills have been passed in the House of Representatives, although approval from the Senate is still pending.

Apart from these bills, Bonto avows that the existing Intellectual Property Law–which requires businesses to pay royalties to artists when they play their music–should be improved. Its application, according to Bonto, is hard to trace as large corporations are prioritized in the monitoring; thus, smaller companies’ violations can get overlooked. “This law is very crucial. It helps protect and preserve the works and the legacy of [artists],” Tijam concedes.

Between attending rigorous hearings and discussions, Bonto admits that the legal battle for artists’ security is dizzyingly onerous. However, all three anticipate a brighter future where all kinds of artists are duly recognized. “It would allow people like me to explore more and maybe make connections that would help us build a better platform and audience,” Bongat adds.

Bonto remains hopeful that strengthening existing laws and advocating for pending ones would greatly protect freelancers and big artists alike. “Promoting these laws [that] can be implemented properly is [already] 80 percent of the work,” she opines.

Knuckling down

The fear of the Philippine arts scene reaching stagnancy becomes more pressing as more freelance creatives shelf their craft out of necessity. The country has yet to establish a proper Department of Culture—which was initially brought up in the House Representatives in 2017—leaving struggling artists to rely on non-government organizations and private sectors for the support they need.

Fortunately, there is always the opportunity to turn things around. Outside of legislation, Tijam shares that initiatives—such as the Shell National Students Art Competition—can encourage student artists to showcase their works. “Ayala Museum has supported this art program for more than ten years by exhibiting the 100 finalists and making these accessible to a wider audience,” she prides. However, she is also hopeful for similar initiatives supported by the government so they can be accessible for those outside of metropolitan areas.

Ultimately, it all boils down to raising awareness on the policies that protect artists, sparking the conversation and opening more channels for Filipino artists to flourish. “Our [artists] have strongly served as a voice of the [Filipino’s] creative minds,” Tijam reminds. “Failure to acknowledge [their] significance in shaping our society may lead…to the inability to collaborate for nation-building.” Admittedly, the climb to institutionalize the arts is an uphill battle. But we’ll never know the true beauty of the Philippines’ unique colors if we don’t safeguard those who keep it vibrant in the first place.

Clarisse Bernal

By Clarisse Bernal

Summer Sanares

By Summer Sanares

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