This is for the cultural workers
Art by Neal P. Corpus
This is for the cultural workers
Jam Pascual (The Philippine Star) - August 28, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — For reasons I can’t really disclose, I’ll be out of a full-time job by September.

This is not a unique experience, and at this point, any exposition of how the pandemic has gutted whole livelihoods and industries would just be the hoarse cry of a broken record. Thousands of Filipinos have been let go from their jobs in what is arguably the most economically damaging crisis our country has faced, at least in recent history. In the forced spirit of asikaso — which is just a flimsy ideal the powerful invoke upon the disenfranchised for lack of better solutions — Filipinos have been forced to scramble in the dark for other sources of income, subsisting on a combination of meager savings, ayuda, and the heart-ripping urgency that comes with living in a time of contagion.

I happen to be in the creative industry, which to many is a term that stands for the loose community of sleep-deprived mercenaries who’ve had to carve their own niches in a ruthless gig economy. That’s not a hyperbole — it’s lots of freelancers, jumping from gig to gig. There are also full-time workers in our ranks, who have to supplement their salaries with hella gigs, many of which still pitch “exposure” as compensation. We are artists, writers, editors, musicians, producers, video editors, directors, designers, actors, art directors. We’re the ones responsible for producing the content others consume to kill their boredom while stuck in quarantine, and we are constantly inundated by unreasonable deadlines and quotas, late capitalist burnout, often ridiculous hours, and a glaring lack of benefits and security.

Like it has done to so many systems, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the exploitative mechanisms that make the creative industry so draining to work in. We’re talking about unsympathetic clients, checks that don’t come in, and unrealistic expectations. I’ve heard stories of clients being wishy-washy about testing talent and disinfecting locations to shoot in. Some agencies handling creatives remain unresponsive and lazy when following up on payments. Even in the middle of an ongoing apocalypse, many companies expect creatives to invoke the Greek muses and crap gold like it’s business as usual. So much of that hell comes from how the industry constitutes the relationship between worker and employer/client, one that typically eschews benefits and fixed wages in favor of, I dunno… Flexitime?

This is a problem that’s been going on for as long as I can remember. The first glossy I worked for unceremoniously capsized, leaving scores of contributors unpaid and an obsolete URL gathering digital dust as an elephant graveyard of puff pieces. Other websites no longer exist. I’ve seen former coworkers get the boot in the middle of their pandemic without so much as a thank you. Even in a plague, clients still meet creatives with emails, sent at ass o’ clock, full of fickle revision points.

The landscape shifts, demand climbs, money runs out, prejudice persists. It’s always people who suffer the most.

Other means of gaining income are impossible in a world in which we can’t physically gather — gigs, galleries, comics and zine fairs and other such events now feel like ancient rituals from a lost civilization. And still we create. Some creatives with sick relatives and loved ones have been forced to turn to GoFundMe-style strategies to pay for exorbitant hospital bills, slaving over their chosen art form to slow the swing of the reaper’s scythe.

Government incompetence mocks us all, but it should give us pause how this administration treats creative and cultural work with a certain kind of impudence. We’re out here reporting the stories, illustrating commissions and donating the funds to medical frontliners. Cultural workers are essential workers, but are not treated as such. Let’s not forget the shutdown of the ABS-CBN franchise and how its exodus of workers, displaced and anxious, were simply dismissed by Bato dela Rosa and told to get “new” jobs. It’s kind of like that one crappy person every artist deals with who says “If you’re so good at what you do, why don’t you do it for free?” but taken to its logical dystopian conclusion. Bon Appetit is relevant to the discussion.

In his essay “On Hypermodernity,” John David Ebert asserts that art is dead, but not the artist. See, the artist “manages to eke out a living like a retrieval of some Robinson Crusoe figure washed ashore with a junkheap of broken signifiers from dead worlds surrounding him.” Friends in my line of work like to joke about how magazines are dead. But the metaphor of the stranded castaway seems more relevant than ever, as we scrounge together a living from the debris of an industry that never truly gave a damn about us.

Look, I come from a place of relative privilege. I’ve got a roof over my head. But my situation doesn’t take away from how inherently exploitative the industry tends to be to cultural workers, especially young creatives. That includes fresh grads who, to my tragic witness, are too often susceptible to the promises of stability and upward mobility that so many companies make. So many of us have been duped by neoliberal ideology. We’re taught to worship the grind and romanticize the narrative of the tortured artist. And for what? I look at the landscape and I see all around me creative and cultural workers who are overworked and underpaid.

It might be too soon to talk about a post-COVID world, with no viable vaccine in sight, as our government rolls out its latest quarantine acronym, so let this be an invitation to speak not of the future, but the present. Things have to change now. We need more pay, more stability, and less BS. There is so much to revise, to create.

WORKERS
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