Lockdown | The freelancers and commission earners who fell through the cracks

As early as the beginning of March, the booming Cape Film industry was already feeling the heat that the novel coronavirus was yet to bring to the rest of South African businesses. But when the lockdown came on 27 March, Tatenda Kowo's worst fears came to the fore: all his income stream came to an indefinite pause.

"All shoots have been cancelled. I don’t know for how long," he said.

Cape Town's film and media production freelancers, and their peers around the country, confront a different reality: They do not qualify to claim under the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s (UIF) Covid-19 Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme.

They cannot seek relief under the numerous schemes that have been set up for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the tourism relief fund or assistance that is given to informal traders. Nor can they even qualify for the temporary Covid-19 unemployment grant or borrow from employers since they do not have permanent jobs.

Tax burden

"Freelancers are taxpayers of 25% to SARS," said Kowo. "Even if we get rebates, we contribute to the nation with the tax we pay. Now the same nation seems to have forgotten about us and the president barely even makes a statement about freelancers."

A day after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the R500 billion Covid-19 package, Andrew* reached out to Fin24 equally frustrated by how commission earners have been left hung out to dry. In his view, President Ramaphosa's "extraordinary relief " has paid more attention on secular employees, SMEs and the impoverished.

"We, however, have been grayed out into no access to any relief as promised by the government," he said.

Andrew, who spoke out on condition of anonymity, said the lockdown came as a shock to everyone. But he was initially comforted by the belief that, having shut down people's means of earning incomes, the government would provide some relief for all South Africans.

"Well, that's what I thought, until I applied for the initiatives," he said.

Relief package might be debated

The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture set aside R150 million for a relief fund that would help athletes as well as production teams and freelancers in cultural and creative industries, if they had scheduled events that had to be cancelled. Freelance workers had to submit proof before 6 April showing that they were contracted to companies that had to cancel events. There will, however, be no relief for projects that have been postponed.

Kowo, however, says the window period for these applications was just three days and over the weekend, making it near impossible even for the few that knew about the fund to apply on time. Fin24 asked the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture whether the fund will reopen for new applications in the wake of the lockdown extension and how much has been paid out to date, but no response was forthcoming at the time of publication.

However, the Minister of Employment and Labour, Thulasi Nxesi, who on Tuesday raised concerns that too few employers were claiming under the UIF scheme, said the issue of freelancers still needs to be debated.

"Unfortunately, with the current legislation, they fall outside. We can't do something illegal. Maybe what we are going to do is after this, we'll have to relook at it in terms of our legislative amendment and start a debate about that," he said.

Some employers are offering loans

For commission earning brokers employed by some of the country's big insurers, some in senior positions will receive a portion of the commission they used to earn, others have been offered loans, while some companies believe that sales agents will be able to sell and up-sell products through digital channels while working from home.

But insurance groups Sanlam and Liberty said they realised that since brokers are not able to meet potential clients face to face, this may severely impact their ability to earn commission. At the same time, because commission earners are not employees but independent contractors, they do not qualify for UIF and related benefits, said Liberty.

Sanlam, which offered loans to brokers serving mostly low-income earners, said some have expressed concern about the offer for interest bearing loans, and has had to amend the relief it will be giving them.

* Surname withheld on request of anonymity.

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