How creators are building their own labor movement in the U.S. and the UK
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If you’re reading this, you know that being a content creator is a real job. What’s frustrating, even now, is that a lot of lawmakers, executives, and professional associations don’t think so.
What used to be a meme-able clash between generations is now having serious repercussions on working conditions and labor rights for career social media creators. While some people think it’s easy to pick up a camera and “make something go viral”, professional creators have lived the umpteen hours it takes to brainstorm, create, edit, and post content people love enough to share.
In the last few years, we’ve seen creators informally attempt to make people aware of their workload with behind-the-scenes footage and explainer content. But this hasn’t been enough. The creator space is still a wild west industry vulnerable to exploitative pay rates, harassment without recourse, and inequities for marginalized people.
With 500,000 active influencers on Instagram alone, this leaves a significant portion of the working population vulnerable to poor labor conditions.
Now creators are pushing back with more aggressive organization efforts. They’re fighting for union representation. Online communities and formal organizations are creating pay transparency. Marginalized creators are advocating for equitable pay and protection from harassment.
As influencer marketing matures past its infancy, the creator labor movement seems almost inevitable. Now and in the next few years, we’ll see online creators lobbying governments, pressuring social platforms, and creating professional associations that give them the same rights you’d find at an in-house, full-time corporate job. That means fighting for:
- Pension and health benefits
- Pay transparency
- Equal rights and pay for marginalized creators
- Protection from harassment
- Predictable income that increases with skill and inflation
- Child labor laws
- Parental leave
- The right to unionize
While the creator labor movement is just beginning, we’re already starting to see significant organization efforts that tackle each of the rights corporate employees either take for granted or are still fighting for themselves. The problem is that it’s a patchwork of solutions tackled by several organizations in different countries—there isn’t one governing body that protects the labor rights of all creators … yet.
Here we’ll take a look at the current status of each part of the creator labor movement, where it’s going, and how you can get involved if you’re a creator who’s passionate about better working conditions for yourself and your community.
Pension and health benefits
If you’re a creator based in the U.S., you’re now eligible to become a member of SAG-AFTRA, which represents American film and television performers.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need a minimum number of followers to be eligible — any union contract with an advertiser triggers your membership. You do, however, need to be an incorporated business.
But keep in mind that you’ll need to meet SAG-AFTRA’s minimum earnings to qualify for pension and health benefits. That means earning at least $25,950 in covered earnings in your base earnings period to qualify for Plan I health coverage. Here’s where you can learn more about what’s covered.
As for your pension, SAG-AFTRA members earn it with credits over time. Here’s where you can learn more about the organization’s pension credit system.
Where SAG-AFTRA doesn’t get involved is with wages. This is for good reason—the union wants creators to retain the freedom to negotiate with brands as they see fit. But where SAG-AFTRA does fall short is its lack of involvement in publishing average rates for creators.
Influencer marketing is still in its infancy, and there is no accepted pay standard for how much creators should get paid for their content. As a result, a lot of creators who are just starting to work with brands are vulnerable to exploitation, either via low rates or placements in exchange for free products. Now that sponsored content creation has become a valid career choice, these practices are unacceptable.
A few organizations are creating pay transparency for creators with grassroots methods. #paid, for example, published its 2021 state of influencer rates report (update coming soon!) by surveying hundreds of creators with follower counts ranging from 5–250K.
f*** you pay me, or FYPM, started as an Instagram account where creators could submit anonymous reviews and examples of sponsorship deals with brands—including how much they got paid. Co-founded by Lindsey Lee Lugrin, past equity analyst and freelance model and influencer, FYPM is described as the “Glassdoor for creators”. FYPM recently launched an app to crowdsource compensation data and hand it over to creators, having also secured pre-seed venture capital so they can hire and grow.
Equal rights and pay for marginalized creators
Pay transparency is even more important for marginalized creators, such as LGBTQ+ creators, disabled creators, creators of color, or creators in larger bodies who are more often asked to accept product in exchange for “exposure” or offered lower rates altogether.
While it’s difficult to track pay gaps between influencers when transparency is barely an industry norm, FYPM found last year that white creators receive an average of $4,352 USD for a campaign, while Black creators receive an average of $478.
Nicole Ocran, co-founder of The Creator Union, is hoping to change this with more education for creators offered through the union she’s helping to establish in the United Kingdom. Nicole told Banknotes last year that, “Price benchmarking eliminates the need to feel grateful and deferential to a business that may frame a partnership with a creator as ‘providing a gift.’ But that’s not what the relationship is.”
Unfortunately, governments aren’t requiring brands to equalize pay for marginalized creators with the same follower count and engagement rates as white, thin, able-bodied, straight creators. As regulating bodies continue to make recommendations on how to standardize many aspects of creator work, this will be a major point of discussion in the next few years.
Freedom from harassment
When someone is harassed at work, most people at least have the option to report incidents to human resources (for better or for worse). But when sponsored creators are harassed online, who’s accountable—the platform, the brand, or the bully?
Social media platforms moderate content with human moderators and artificial intelligence, but it’s nowhere near enough to protect creators who are vulnerable to harassment. Regulators in the United States are currently grappling with the harms of social media on mental health, but they’re not even close to a solution that would define accountability for creators who are more exposed to bullying than other groups of people.
In September 2021, the UK government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) asked members of The Creator Union to participate in a panel on influencer culture. During the session, Ocran told the committee that “anyone who looks different is subject to trolling” with “little to no brand or platform support.”
Despite Ocran’s testimony, the DCMS shied away from making a recommendation on harassment accountability in its resulting report, “Influencers: lights, camera, inaction?” While the report does recommend developing a code of conduct for advertisers, it’s unclear whether or not this will include protection from harassment or steps to provide support for creators who are sponsored by said advertisers.
Child labor laws
The DCMS report also found that “child influencers are at risk of exploitation” by parents and other family members who are using their child’s likeness to capitalize on lucrative brand sponsorships. And the government hasn’t done nearly enough to account for the inability of a child to consent to becoming a social media influencer in the first place.
The report recommends that the UK government “develop new legislation to address the gaps in UK labour legislation that are leaving child influencers vulnerable to exploitation,” which would include limitations on working hours, the protection of earnings, and ensure the “right to be forgotten” if the child later decides that they want their likeness erased.
Unfortunately, there has been little movement on other items that often (not always) come with an in-house corporate job. Things like parental leave and predictable income not tied to performance metrics seem like discussions that won’t be had from a legal perspective until creators either advance in unionization efforts or lobby governments to formalize these rights in law. We’ll continue to report on advancements in these areas as they develop.