Europe's artists deserve better working conditions

One MEP on the 'unviability' of the labour market for creative workers across the Continent
– and what policymakers can do to fix it.
Culture professionals protesting in Greece, 2021 | Alamy

By Domenec Ruiz Devesa

Member of the European Parliament from Spain, and chair of the culture (CULT) committee

28 Feb 2024

It is not uncommon to hear heartfelt laudatios to Europe’s culture and heritage in political speeches. Yet, there is a disconnect between the declared high value ascribed to culture and the low level of support devoted to cultural creators and cultural professionals.  

In today’s Europe, the biggest investments in culture are made by artists and cultural professionals themselves. They contend with low pay, unstable incomes, atypical working conditions, discontinuous working arrangements and a general lack of job security. If they received the rights and protections that are commonplace in other industries, the cultural offer would be less accessible.   

A third (31.7 per cent) of Europe’s cultural and creative workers are self-employed compared to 14 per cent in the economy as a whole, according to 2022 figures from the European Union’s statistical office. Moreover, according to a study from the European Parliamentary Research Service, the cultural sector is one of the industries with the highest rates of bogus self-employment in the EU.   

Difficulties in accessing social security compound the precarious situation of these professionals. After all, their work often requires them to tour abroad, with diverging administrative procedures and work status definitions at the national level complicating their access to social security. Increasingly, digitisation, and generative artificial intelligence especially, while sometimes a useful tool, are also posing a threat to artists' livelihoods; as are growing levels of censorship limiting freedom of artistic expression, with a subsequent impact on earnings.  

While this situation is not new, it was pushed to the limit by the Covid-19 pandemic, when the cultural sector ground to a halt following a series of successive lockdowns. Every show cancelled and every exhibition postponed carried deep financial consequences for workers already facing stark levels of precariousness.  

In short, the pandemic laid bare the unviability of the current labour model for cultural professionals. It’s why, last year, the Parliament drafted an own-initiative legislative report with joint co-rapporteurship between the Committee on Culture and Education and the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.   

While this situation is not new, it was pushed to the limit by the Covid-19 pandemic

The report called for the establishment of a so-called EU framework on the social and professional situation of artists and other professionals in the cultural and creative sector through legislative and non-legislative tools. Specifically, the framework would include a directive on decent working conditions that seeks to correctly determine cultural and creative workers’ employment status, with the aim of curbing bogus self-employment. It would also establish decisions allowing work towards EU quality standards in the sector.  

Another important initiative included in the report is the introduction of ‘social conditionality’ in the next cycle of EU cultural funding programmes, such as Creative Europe. This principle would ensure that EU, national or collective labour and social obligations are always met as part of such projects and ensure that artists are always fairly remunerated, with time spent in rehearsals or preparing funding applications also compensated.  

Our proposal was adopted 21 November 2023, with 433 votes in favour, sending an important political signal to the Commission on the need for better labour protections for cultural professionals. The Commission now has a few weeks left to respond to our legislative initiative.