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Opinion: Engineer Olga Fitzroy explains why she’s campaigning for Shared Parental Pay for freelancers

Revered recording engineer Olga Fitzroy is launching a petition to make shared parental pay available to the self-employed. Here, she tells PSNEurope about her career so far and why this subject is so important for the audio industry…

I started my career nearly 15 years ago, at Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios, and worked my way up through the ranks for a decade. In 2013 I went freelance to engineer Coldplay’s sixth studio album, Ghost Stories, with producers Rik Simpson and Paul Epworth.

My son was born in November 2015 and I was looking forward to sharing the childcare with my husband, as the new Shared Parental Leave regulations had just come into force. When it came to filling in the forms I realised that I wasn’t eligible because I was self-employed. I could get Maternity Allowance but couldn’t share this with my husband. As a self-employed woman with no job security, other than the loyalty of my clients, I was expected to take 39 weeks off with only 10 ‘keeping in touch’ days to maintain client relationships.

How would people know that I was still alive and hadn’t decided to ditch the mixing desk in favour of baby massage and prosecco in the park? I couldn’t quite believe that there would still be legislation that so thoroughly tramples the notions of equality that I grew up with, but this is very much the case for nearly five million self-employed people.

I ended up stretching my 10 ‘keeping in touch’ days to their limit, my husband took holiday for childcare and I cut short my maternity period, in order to be able to do the projects I wanted to maintain my career.

In February 2016 I won the MPG Recording Engineer of the Year award, and consequently did numerous interviews for industry press, and was often asked how I was juggling motherhood with work. A valid question, but not one I ever recall reading in an interview with a male engineer or producer with a young family.

After yet another question about this, I ended up having a bit of a vent about the inherent sexism in the current parental benefits system for freelancers and, on reading it back, I decided to actually get off my arse and do something about it – as a good friend of mine often says – “nobody likes a moaner”.

How would people know that I was still alive and hadn’t decided to ditch the mixing desk in favour of baby massage and prosecco in the park?

Olga FitzRoy

I first contacted the MPG (Music Producers Guild) to see if they could help with a campaign. They were hugely supportive and got UK Music, the industry lobbyists, on board.

While the music industry does have issues with underrepresentation of women and people from BAME backgrounds, there seems to be a real willingness to change this. I have had nothing but support from the people in the music and film industries that I’ve spoken to.

In just a few months we’ve run a survey, submitted a report to a government review (which incidentally went on to recommend exactly what we’ve been asking for), met with politicians, seen our policy in the Labour manifesto, and have now launched a petition.

As Shared Parental Leave/Pay itself is relatively new, many people aren’t even aware there’s an issue. So some of this campaign is about raising awareness – telling self-employed people what they’re missing out on, by talking to membership organisations, including trade unions, and asking them to highlight the issue to their members.

There are reports of a 1-4% uptake of SPL amongst employees, but in our survey 75% of respondents said they’d take Shared Parental Leave/Pay if they became eligible in the future.

43% of people in the creative industries are self-employed, with much of the work being project based and very reliant on client-relationships. It can be a business and family finance disaster for mothers to hide away for the first year and let their businesses slide, and besides, most fathers want to spend more time with their kids.

I’m beginning to think that even the government needs educating on the effect these regulations are having, as only last month shadow DCMS minister Kevin Brennan, asked a parliamentary question about extending shared parental leave to self-employed parents, and the answer was borderline patronising. “Ministers in this Department and others have regular discussions on a number of issues…” (really?!) “Self-employed people have greater flexibility over their working hours, including when they take time off work.”

The point is clearly not just taking time off – worryingly, Margot James, the minister for small business does not seem to understand the financial impact of a self-employed person just “taking time off work”.

Without paid holiday or shared parental leave, there are many self-employed fathers who simply cannot afford to take time off work to help with childcare, therefore leaving women literally holding the baby.

So our aim is to explain the issue as simply as possible, highlight the effect it has on people, and put pressure on the government to make the change.

We’ve recently joined forces with maternity discrimination pressure-group Pregnant Then Screwed and are supporting its March Of The Mummies, a family protest march from Trafalgar Square to Westminster on October 31, where we will put a list of demands to the government, including Shared Parental Pay for the self-employed.

Our aim is to explain the issue as simply as possible, highlight the effect it has on people, and put pressure on the government to make the change

Olga FitzRoy

The change we are proposing shouldn’t cost more money, it is simply a case of making the £140 a week that the mothers are entitled to available to either parent, and I am hopeful we can find the political will to do this.

At a time when the 18% gender pay-gap is rightly under scrutiny, particularly in media, the government cannot afford to do nothing, and I’m proud that the music industry is leading this change.

Sign the petition here.

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Recording engineer launches campaign to give freelancers rights to Shared Parental Pay