Studying the coping of creative persons is like the Lord's work that never ends, Kaarel Tarand writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.
On Wednesday morning, I eagerly awaited a press release that would have sent the entire media buzzing. Something along the lines of: "Kiik and Riisalo: We will patch holes in the social safety net by Midsummer's at the latest."
The Ministry of Social Affairs has known for years that Estonian social protection rules do not ensure equal health, unemployment and pension protection for different legal work relationships. Nevertheless, the results of a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and carried out by the Praxis Center for Policy Studies on the coping and social guarantees of freelance creative persons were nothing short of shocking. "Rules that discriminate against a considerable minority must immediately be replaced with new ones in line with the region's understanding of solidarity and equal treatment. There is no alternative for universal social protection that covers absolutely everyone. That is why we plan to take to the government draft legislation to amend applicable and possibly tax laws in January at the latest so that the Riigikogu could pass the amendment during its spring session and new rules take effect in early 2023," ministers Kiik and Riisalo declared.
No such press release was sent. While Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo recently appeared live on ERR, the topic of conversation revolved around a lot of other shortcomings and problems in the social ministry's administrative area, not the discriminating and debilitating injustice in terms of health and work ability that, according to the Praxis study, concerns more than ten thousand freelance creative persons (complemented by a number of freelancers in less creative fields). Not her area, you say? Who then should care about the work allocation of a ministry with two ministers in a situation where a problem in need of a rapid solution regularly lands on the desks of both?
The Tuesday presentation of the results of the Praxis study was attended by culture and social ministry deputy secretaries general who were up to speed on the situation and voiced support for rapid changes. Alas, they were unable to say in so many words and could only hint that above them is a near impenetrable glass ceiling that could perhaps be broken with luck but definitely not the sensibility and necessity of a plan. Official horizontal cooperation might be impeccable, while it will only have a result if political bodies in charge of making decisions do their work fearlessly and in good time.
It would be easy to populate the rest of the article with quotes of coalition partners' election promises, the government's activity plan and studies and analyses commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Allow me to quote just one from the field of healthcare. The government's activity plan tasked the social ministry with putting together "analysis and proposals for ensuring the sustainability of health insurance system funding" by March of 2021. It did. The analysis laconically concludes: "The relative importance of residents without health insurance is higher in Estonia compared to other EU member states. Analyses show that a notable part of the working population has sporadic health coverage. The situation is made worse by increasingly popular flexible working relationships." The result? Six months of absolutely nothing. By the way, the analysis is based on multiple past studies the contents of which the authorities have had a decade to ponder. How much longer will the situation continue to get worse before political visionaries, now standing on a tall tower of piled-up knowledge, arrive at something practical? Every day of inaction works to deepen the financial and health-related problems of thousands of people right now, robbing them of the future.
I want to emphasize three points made in the wake of the Tuesday presentation. Firstly, how chairman of the Estonian Theater Association Gert Raudsepp wrote in great detail how the powers that be and existing rules have left freelance creative persons with an underhanded and absolutely inadmissible choice that is considered unthinkable in the case of other, more traditional work relationships. Namely choosing whether to declare income and pay taxes to qualify for health insurance or unemployment insurance. You cannot get both. Whereas the situation is not one people can do anything about – the entire responsibility is in the hands of those who made the rules. The state is indirectly labeling citizens as not law-abiding and working against state interests. Such people need to be taken under special supervision and harassed more effectively than others, for example, through the tax board or by blocking the availability of universal services. Could it be that the only lever the citizen has left is to go through all court instances because the executive and legislative power cannot be bothered to get a move on until ordered to by a Supreme Court ruling?
Secondly, Taaniel Raudsepp, deputy secretary general of the Ministry of Culture, (and others) repeatedly said that, unfortunately, social policy that concerns freelancers currently needs to be pursued inside culture policy. It is possible that it is the best solution in a series of poor ones as it reflects the government's inability to successfully allocate work between agencies. This kind of a temporary solution will culminate in a state budget conflict sooner or later. We may get a truly capable culture minister in the future who will succeed in solving all creative persons' coping problems (irrespective of the legal form of working) through increased state budget funding. The state would pay for any and all market failures and drive the prices of creative work so high to allow creative persons to declare a constant, uninterrupted income, voluntarily pay all social insurance premiums irrespective of the nature of their income etc. Who has the energy to keep the faith in something like that happening? To continue down the chosen path, the Ministry of Culture will rather remain a lobby organization as it is beyond its remit to show legislative initiative in social policy. The logical outcome would be for the culture minister, equipped with data and proposals, to rush to the government to achieve a collective decision or at least an order from the PM to the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Thirdly, several voices suggested a creative person's work is often not seen as such in the public eye, despite the fact its result is often visible, audible or tangible that should make it easier to consider creative efforts work compared to those of bureaucrats, executives, trainers or marketers. This public conviction has manifested in its darkest form in the comments' sections of articles covering the coping of freelance artists and probably in other corners of social media that are hidden from my view in recent days ("Get a job, freeloaders!"). The result is damage to the reputation of walks of life that, unlike ranting in social media, have been listed in the Constitution as valuable and deserving of protection. Those who do not rise up against stupidity help perpetuate it. Where is the counterstrike against the verbal aggression aimed at art, creation and culture? Is it another example of free choice that comes with the obligation of self-defense and justifying one's existence and to the defense of which politicians must not rise? Or would it be fair to give creative associations at least as much for the purposes of promoting creative work than political parties currently receive from the state budget to keep their faces clean?
Everything I've said is, of course, misguided because the actions of the government are based on two core values. Firstly, that the government cannot do anything because everything that happens in a country of citizens is solely and exclusively the sum of the responsibility and corresponding behavior of all citizens. According to ancient teachings, the government must not lift a finger to help citizens until the latter have done everything possible and more for the government (ask not what your country can do for you…). The second maxim that is triggered should the government nevertheless do something by accident is the pristine, laconic and outright constitution-worthy principle of "There are no culprits!" The search for and identification of those responsible must be obstructed with the same level of mental fortitude used to oppose the formation of a state church (§ 40 of the Constitution), censorship (§ 45) or tying an MP to their mandate (§ 62). This is the automatic reply for those who in five years, when society has been enriched with several more studies and analyses treating with the coping and unfair treatment of freelancers, will come and ask whether the social safety net has finally been patched?
Editor: Marcus Turovski