Are You Being Taken For Granted As A Freelancer?

Posted by Vaishnavi Sundar in Culture-Vulture, Society
December 2, 2016


“I was told that the project has been dropped on shooting day, via a WhatsApp text. The company wouldn’t pick up our calls and we were left stranded in our hotel, unchecked.”

I am an independent filmmaker and I aspire to make the most of my earnest activism through the films I make. Ever since I ventured into filmmaking, I have always respected the freedom of flexible time. So, with a one-film-a-year approach, I have ended up making two fiction films and one documentary film so far. While spending time on my own scripts, and hosting film festivals, my schedule has always been tight. With such a timeline, I am very picky with commissioned projects and corporate videos. Last month, I said yes to one because the content resonated with me strongly. Everything was set. I enjoyed the success of releasing my fourth film. But things went horribly wrong towards the end for some bizarre reason. And if you are a freelancer like me, you will share my outrage over what ensued.

On October 21, a Chennai-based NGO, working for the welfare of domestic violence survivors, etc., contacted me via Facebook. I met the CEO in person and verbally agreed to proceed with the project. In this meeting, I specifically elucidated that my company, Lime Soda Films is not registered, and that should they hire me. I would work in my capacity as an individual, as a freelancer. They agreed and acknowledged what I said. There were no problems. And that very night, I drafted an invoice and emailed it to them.

In the days leading up to the production, I met my editor and cinematographer. I did two elaborate recces and even booked the dates for post production at a studio for 10 days. I cut costs for them everywhere despite their express deadlines! Everybody blocked their dates and didn’t take up other projects. A MoU was drafted but the changes that I had asked for were added much later. I made the terms transparent and exhaustive. We were supposed to sign it in November. Yet, out of nowhere, they contacted me only to inform that they had to drop it because my company was not registered. They said that they were bound by a rule in which they couldn’t pay an individual more than ₹15,000 under the FCR Act. The contract had not been signed when it was called off, and when I spoke to the CEO, I figured they hadn’t even opened my draft.

Any filmmaker would be able to relate to the trauma of a production being called off just days before the shoot. When I offered to do this project, I knew it was not going to be about money, so on my request, the crew had agreed to work for half the peanuts. I invested an entire month on pre-production, running from pillar to post, spending my own money. There were times when Uber asked me if I was okay with 2.2x, and I had to say yes to the technological abomination.

For design and writing, freelancers charge a ‘kill fee’ when projects get called off at the last minute. But it is tricky to arrive at a figure for a film because primarily, it involves a lot of people and the distribution of such a fee becomes complicated.

I have learnt from this unpleasant experience that, NGO or not, their attitude towards supporting a particular cause can’t be taken for granted, and has no correlation with how they treat you — as just a mere individual and freelancer. With a sloppy and capitalist exchange, their very intent to make the world a better place seemed questionable to me. To add to this loss of time, energy and effort, they had the impudence to tell me that they took a chance with me — by seeking my services despite knowing that there were some alleged restrictions.

The whole argument didn’t seem right — such restrictions on freelancers and a cap on the amount that can be given to an individual appeared ambiguous. Kirthi Jayakumar, a lawyer by qualification and the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation says, “The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act relates to foreign contributions being made into an organisation in India. For a nonprofit to receive foreign funding, it is necessary that they are registered under the FCRA. That’s pretty much all that it says — there’s nothing on it that addresses how much a nonprofit is to pay to an individual. Under business laws, an individual is well within his capacity to carry out any business that is legal, and receive and expect to receive payments for it. This is also recognised under business terms as a sole-proprietorship. Freelancers are also recognised under law, wherein a person functions like an independent contractor. Nothing in the FCRA addresses an NGO’s relationship with a freelancer!”

Maybe an organisation chooses to abide by certain rules that are exclusive to them and not applicable to other organisations or the industry. But why hire the services of somebody against such rules, make her work for a whole month and then hit her by a revelation on the 12th hour?

One thing became incontestably clear to me; there is no charity in business, even if it is a business with a charity organisation. I have undertaken projects in the past where income tax would be deducted at source and with the ‘Form 16’ that was given to me, I was able to file my returns without any hassle. Of course, there are other occasions when clients behave so unprofessionally that they make you wait for the money that is rightfully yours.Director Srishti Jayin says, “As a freelancer, it is an everyday occurrence to wake up to calls from clients asking for an update. However, once the project is over, the tables turn. I am the one making the incessant calls asking for the outstanding payments. I did a documentary project December last year, but didn’t get paid until August. They deducted TDS but I haven’t got my ‘Form 16’ yet.”

With every client, we learn something new, and we think we have double checked to make sure everything is as per plan. But more often than not, freelancers run the risk of getting caught in precarious situations when the clients vanish. Harish Gowtham, a freelance cinematographer says, “My colleague and I were in Kerala for a test shoot, after working for almost 2–3 months on pre-production here in Chennai. I was told that the project has been dropped on shooting day, via a WhatsApp text. The company wouldn’t pick up our calls and we were left stranded in our hotel, unchecked. We had to survive the next two days with just ₹300 since it happened over a weekend. They even lacked the courtesy to do it over a phone call.”

So, here’s the deal my fellow individual champions, we need to be able to identify discrimination when we see it and be in a position to call it out. We are flexible, totally non-bureaucratic and hiring us would mean a lot less paperwork. No company can discriminate against us or our services because we do not own or represent a company. If they reject us by virtue of our individuality, we have the right to question them.

Have You Been Hired? If Yes, Follow These, Religiously:

  • Carefully plan and come up with the project’s invoice, use any of the free invoice software that is available.
  • Set up a contract and sign it as early as possible. Make sure you add contingency fund. You can always submit invoices as you spend them.
  • Compulsorily, add a ‘kill fee’ that would allow you to recover any loss if the production has been called off. Now, this is tricky – but talk to your crew members in advance. Or based on the project, and the work involved, come up with a percentage of the production cost. You can even have ‘kill fee’ for every stage in which a project could be scrapped.
  • If a tax is going to be deducted at source, make it a point to mention that in the contract that ‘Form 16’ must be provided. It might take a short while for the ‘Form 16’ to be processed, but ensure that there is a timeline mentioned in the contract.
  • Try and get everything via bank transfer and avoid cash exchange. If you do, take it in writing the amount you took as cash.
  • Make transcripts of all verbal conversations and slap it on an email thread to the client. Never accept verbal agreements, no matter how trustworthy it sounds.
  • Keep vouchers for when you can’t get the invoice, for example, if you hire assistants. Make a voucher and get it signed by the members of your team. Do so even if you are not asked to submit.
  • Lastly, if you are a woman, don’t let anyone make you under quote yourself. There are enough fights being fought to break the ceiling, let’s not build on the broken ones!

An on-paper registration doesn’t singularly claim your credibility or rank your professionalism. The NGO that contacted me, did so after knowing about my prolonged participation in feminist activism and progressive filmmaking. But if being a freelancer has become such a no-no for organisations with an elite carelessness, we can say that capitalism has got its dirty hands in this much-needed battle.

Preferences for a registered or non-registered personnel are acceptable but what is preposterous is a systemic discrimination coming from someone who is out there to fight it. The NGOs, I am looking at you. Even if the company is registered but the proprietor chooses to take up freelancing jobs, choices must still be respected.

There cannot be a better summary to this than the one coming from Nina Paley, animator, and the maker of Sita Sings The Blues. “It took me years of being rejected by big companies to realise they were doing me a favour. Otherwise I’d be working for one of them now. Some individuals like being all ‘corporate’, I am just not one of them.”