Pay, safety and welfare: how the new Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces can strengthen the arts sector
In May, we predicted Tony Burke’s joint portfolio of workplace relations and the arts was an opportunity to address some of the challenges facing the arts and cultural sector.
With the launch of Revive, the new national cultural policy, we’re seeing this potentially start to pay off.
One focal point of Revive is the establishment of the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces, a new body within Creative Australia (a rebranded and expanded Australia Council). The role of the centre is, according to the policy:
to provide advice on issues of pay, safety and welfare in the arts and entertainment sector, refer matters to the relevant authorities and develop codes of conduct and resources for the sector.
The policy frames artists as workers deserving of workplace protections and rights. As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said at the launch: “Arts jobs are real jobs.”
It’s no secret the arts sector has a poor track record when it comes to working conditions. A report from 2021 noted 45% of Australia’s arts and cultural workers were in casual or insecure roles. The gender pay gap in the arts is 9% wider than other sectors of the economy. The music industry continues to make headlines for widespread bullying and sexual harassment. Meanwhile, the sector is struggling to attract and retain workforce talent.
It’s clear things need to change.
What role could the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces play in addressing these issues?
Read more: Tony Burke's double ministry of arts and industrial relations could be just what the arts sector needs
The centre’s role will be a mix of regulation, policy and provision of resources.
It will be able to set standards around minimum inclusions in grant processes – such as compliance with the Respect@Work recommendations. The centre will also act as a referral agency to organisations such as Fair Work Australia and Comcare. Whether it will function as an investigative or policing body remains to be seen.
Its overarching responsibility will be to establish a connection between the arts and issues of pay, safety and welfare.
The development of safe workplaces relies, first and foremost, on the provision of fair and equitable wages. If artists can’t survive financially, they can’t thrive.
The Australia Council has highlighted the importance of fair pay. The council has a dedicated web page on artist payments and requires funding applicants to meet the minimum rates of pay under relevant industry standards.
The challenge has been a lack of consistent industrial benchmarks establishing these standards and the absence of consequences for organisations that choose to ignore them. Part of the difficulty also stems from the size and structure of many arts organisations, which often lack designated human resources specialists. This leaves independent contractors and casual workers with little formal recourse against unfair working conditions.
Efforts to promote artist safety and welfare also already exist in Australia cultural policy. Arts South Australia, has incorporated “respectful behaviours” guidelines into their funding agreements. But, like fair pay, these kinds of policies can be vague and often little more than aspirational in practice.
There is an opportunity for the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces to establish strong standards set expectations within the sector and help to hold arts organisations to account.
Burke told Triple J’s Hack the centre will develop codes of conduct, and if organisations aren’t “keeping up to date” with these codes around workplace bullying and harassment, they will not be able to “come knocking on the door for government funding”.
The centre will also importantly function as a point of contact and referral for arts workers who have nowhere else to go for support.
Other areas where the centre can offer substantive value are in the improvement of workplace standards and the communication of revised industrial frameworks and awards. However, the centre’s ability to build of new cultures across the dispersed workforce of freelancers, sole traders and small to medium enterprises will remain a significant challenge.
Arts workers recognise the need for change, but they need access to specialist advice to achieve it.
Signs of optimism
There has been some unease about the increased role of arts bureaucracy within the new cultural policy. The decision to create three new administrative entities in addition to the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces – all with significant budgets – highlights concerns institutions are once again being prioritised over individual artists.
In the case of the centre, the key will be whether the body can actually address the art sector’s unstable and inequitable workplace conditions through its policies and regulations.
As a sign of optimism, this model isn’t without precedent. The Swedish arts sector has seen significant success using a similar top-down institutional approach to address cultural workforce issues, particularly around gender inequality.
Since 2006, Sweden has implemented multiple policies leveraging access to funding and quotas to increase women’s representation in the arts. In 2011, the Swedish Arts Council even launched a dedicated agency to help support projects promoting gender equality in music.
Ultimately, what the centre achieves will be shaped by the decision-makers within it. The centre’s staff must represent Australia’s diverse creative community and clearly understand how and why things must change. As Jo Caust notes, detail and execution are critical. Cultural policy is more than words, it’s what happens after that makes the difference.
As columnist Sean Kelly suggests, Revive’s true measure of success will be the health of arts workplaces:
Burke will be judged on whether the arts again becomes a field that people want to work in – a field in which workers are respected and paid properly for their work.
The Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces will play a crucial role in determining that success.
Read more: 'Arts are meant to be at the heart of our life': what the new national cultural policy could mean for Australia – if it all comes together
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.