OPINION: It’s still too easy to exploit Filipino creatives in 2019

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The creative field still isn’t respected enough by the public, despite being one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Twenty-four-year-old layout artist Frederick Escota’s Facebook post went viral. He recounted how he was suddenly fired from Top Draw Animation Studios without warning, and how he was also refused his end of project bonus.

According to Escota, he had been working for the studio since 2015, drawing layout backgrounds for animation work. The studio has worked with huge clients such as Cartoon Network and Disney, animating shows “My Little Pony” and the “Tom and Jerry Show,” among others. Escota worked on a contract-based arrangement during these four years, but claims he was treated as a regular employee as he was required to show up in the Ortigas office. His tax was also deducted from his basic salary of ₱2,700 ($52.60) weekly or ₱10,800 ($210.37) a month.

However, after two months of slow workdays in the studio, some workers were suddenly told that they were being fired. “Bandang hapon, around 2 p.m., iniwanan kami ng supervisor namin ng fries na tig-50 pesos sa pwesto namin,” Escota recounts. “Hindi namin alam kung bakit siya biglang nanlibre at wala pa rin kaming kamuwang-muwang nun. Maya-maya pa, marami kaming pinatawag sa ‘theater room’ at doon ay in-announce na papipirmahin na kami ng end of contract. Nagkagulatan na lang kami na wala na pala kaming trabaho pero pababalikin na lang daw kapag may bagong show na. Pinag-surrender kami ng mga ID namin at pinagligpit din ng mga gamit sa table.”

Escota shares that this was the first time this happened, as the usual process during lean seasons would be to have the animators wait for new shows without necessarily firing them. This time, they do not know where to run for help or what to do to fight back.

“Sa ngayon, hindi ko pa sigurado dahil karamihan sa mga kasama ko ngayon ay naduduwag din o tingin nila ay normal lang ‘yung ginawa ng Top Draw sa amin. Gustuhin ko mang magsampa ng kaso ay wala naman akong pambayad ng abogado,” Escota says.

The post drew ire online from fellow creatives in the Philippines. It has 571 shares to date, with several people encouraging him to run to a lawyer or to the Tulfo brothers. To make matters worse, Escota recently discovered that some of his other co-workers were asked to return, but he was not because of his Facebook post. “Kabilang ako dun sa hindi na pababalikin dahil sa post ko na naging against them daw pero sarili naman nilang kagagawan yun,” he says.

We reached out to Top Draw Animation for their side but they declined to comment. “We have been receiving a lot of [requests] for an interview but we declined. We will answer these allegations in due time. Thank you for your understanding.”

A screenshot of Escota's post that drew ire online from fellow creatives in the Philippines. It has 571 shares to date. Screenshot from FREDERICK TIMBAL ESCOTA/FACEBOOK

Cautionary tales

Stories like Escota’s are sadly very common in the creative industry. The field still isn’t respected enough by the public, despite being one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. The Department of Trade and Industry says that the Creative Economy contributes ₱600 billion to the country’s GDP and hires 14.4 percent of the labor force.

Despite this, many Filipino parents still dissuade their children from taking up courses in the arts, convincing them to instead take up traditionally high-paying jobs such as medicine or law. Ironically, the “walang pera sa arts” reality only exists because the general public refuses to pay for creative work in the first place. The average person would much rather pay for a tangible product or service whose benefits they can physically feel, over something as abstract as creative work. Most clients who hire artists will grossly underestimate the cost and time needed to execute projects, sometimes even expecting the work to be done for free.

Horror stories of this nature abound in the thousands — and are even looked at as the standard way a creative will be treated in this industry. Wherever creatives gather, cautionary tales are passed from one freelancer to another as a way to protect ourselves: don’t let your relatives coerce you into working for food and favors, be wary of this client that always expects work to be finished in a week, don’t agree to projects that pay peanuts.

One Facebook group called Independent Creative & Advertising Professionals even goes so far as discussing what the standard rates for different types of creative projects should be, encouraging veteran artists to share their own rates so that newer, fresh grads won’t be taken advantage of. Several writing projects still cost 50 cents per word — which is way lower than what other writers will say is the standard of ₱2-5 per word. In another story, one client expected videography work to be done for ₱500 — a meager sum compared to what the author of the post was expecting to cost ₱7,000-20,000.

What makes the experience worse is that several clients still don’t see the importance of paying for both the creative/concept fee and the materials fee. The creative/concept fee refers to payment for the expertise of the creatives themselves, or as often quoted, “You’re not paying me for designing this in three minutes; you’re paying me for the years I spent trying to learn how to design this in three minutes.” The materials fee, on the other hand, refers to any expense the creative has to pay to get the job done: studio rental, photo and video equipment, printing costs, etc.

Several clients will agree to pay the materials fee (perhaps because of the general agreement to paying for tangible things), but will try to reduce or remove the creative fee altogether. In most cases, clients will require creatives to pay for the materials fee themselves, or will tell creatives to reduce their concept fee to cover payment for any materials.

Aside from the problem of clients trying to get creative work for cheap or for free, there is also the problem of delayed payments. Creative freelancers often get paid several months after they render their services, since clients don’t consider this payment as holding the same importance as paying salaries to employees.

As a fellow creative, I’m no stranger to the experience of peak and lean seasons, and know several friends who’ve also had to wait anywhere from three months to more than a year just to be paid for one-off projects. I also know friends who’ve had to pay upfront for materials, ranging in the tens of thousands, and have had to suffer financially as they waited for months in order to be reimbursed.

Veteran creatives share the rates they personally charge clients, so that younger artists may have a better grasp of how to price their services. Screenshot from TWITTER

Any creative solutions?

What then should creatives do if they find themselves in the same situation as Escota?

Lawyers recommend that even before going into a job, creatives should ensure that the contracts they sign clearly lay down what they want or expect from the job, including the nature of their relationship with the organization.

To determine whether your contract stipulates an employer-employee relationship between you and the organization you work for, a four-fold test can be conducted. Look closely into the following:

- Right to hire or to the selection and engagement of the employee.
- Payment of wages and salaries for services.
- Power of dismissal or the power to impose disciplinary actions.
- Power to control the employee with respect to the means and methods by which the work is to be accomplished. This is known as the right-of-control test.

For creatives who are employees, the Twin Notice rule applies, meaning that they should be notified twice before being let go. For contractual workers, their rights will then be based on the contracts they signed and they should re-examine these for any indicated process of termination. If it turns out that the organization violated the terms of agreement, the creative has a fighting chance to be compensated.

Another measure that is being pushed that creatives may benefit from is Senate Bill 351 or the Freelancers Protection Act, filed by the Office of Senator Bam Aquino. The proposed bill states the following: “In the event that an employer refuses to pay a freelancer for services rendered, the aggrieved party can file a complaint to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and can expect the agency to investigate and, should the complaint be considered valid, a penalty of up to ₱250,000 shall be imposed on the non-compliant employer.”

The bill also seeks to give freelancers the option to file civil cases and their employers will have to pay penalties for each day they refuse to compensate the creative. Aside from these, the bill also seeks to make registration with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) easier for freelancers. However, the SBN 351 has been pending in the committee since 2016 and hasn’t seen much push aside from Senator Villanueva’s expression of his intent to co-author it last 2018.

Despite different government experts singing the praises of the Creative Economy and heralding its impending boom, very little has changed when it comes to creatives’ actual experiences. Even in 2019, we still need an accessible means of recourse when it comes to exploitation, especially since many creatives don’t have the money or resources to pursue legal cases in the first place. Employers should also educate themselves better when it comes to compensating and treating creative professionals, and be better at viewing us as equals with other professionals.

“Mali na nagtiis ako sa maling pamamalakad at pagtrato ng Top Draw sa aming mga empleyado,” Escota says. “Masaya ako na nag-post ako online at nalaman ng mga tao na may ganitong nangyayaring issue sa animation industry. Para sa mga tulad kong artists, dapat talaga ay fully informed ang lahat sa mga karapatan namin. Sana ay mapagtibay pa ang labor rights ng mga artist sa animation industry. Higit sa lahat, sana makakuha pa rin kami ng justice at mapanagot lahat ng dapat managot.”

While the difficulty of quantifying the arts and creative work is understandable, it then makes more sense for creatives to continually define what acceptable pay means and for the general public to more responsibly engage with creatives. This will have to take into consideration the changing economy — the difficulty of learning and accessing a skill, man hours needed to accomplish a project, and rising costs of materials, among others. But most importantly (and most often forgotten), creatives should be paid a humane living wage — not merely based on productivity or efficiency but also on the basic human need to feed and clothe ourselves.