Still Waiting For A Slice of the Cake

Young journalists are uniting to protest their precarious working conditions, but long-standing writers are struggling to make ends meet too

Let them eat cake? ORF freelancers say they are left with crumbs | Photo: Herbert Neubauer/APA

They are talented, well educated, fluent in several languages, and highly dedicated. Newspapers, television and radio stations depend on them. And yet, freelance journalists are struggling to make a living from their work, while their prospects of ever gaining full employment in the media seem increasingly illusory.

Now, freelancers are banding together to demand a better deal.

“We had to do something,” says Hanna Silbermayr, who writes for the Austrian daily Der Standard and the website of FM4, a public radio station with cult status among young listeners. The work is regular, but the income nowhere near enough. “It’s incredibly hard to live on €500 a month,” she says. “I can say that because I’ve done it.”

Around half of the journalists working for Austrian print media are freelancers; for television and radio, the figure stands at roughly 17%, and at 40% for online media, according to the Austrian journalists’ union (GPA-djp). And yet, freelancers say they are undervalued. While a 2008 study by the Wiener Medienhaus, a research institute, puts freelancers’ monthly average earnings at €1,590 after tax, the figure is misleading. The statistics excluded salaries below €1,000 assuming they could not possibly be full-time jobs. But often they are, even for established writers like Mark Hammer. Hammer works more than 40 hours a week at the Department for Science, Education and Society at the renowned public radio station Ö1 and still earns no more than about €1,000 a month.

“Everyday I ask myself whether or not I should keep going,” says Hammer. “I love my work, but under these conditions, I don’t see a way out.”

All work, no benefits 

And while he values the independence that comes with freelance work, Hammer also wants the same rights that employed people take for granted. Like all freelancers, he has to pay for his own social insurance and gets no paid vacations or sick leaves.

This harsh reality struck home with fellow Ö1 contributor Sabine Nikolay, who has been with the station since the 1990s. Struck by a car on her way to work, she sustained a complicated leg injury and was bedridden for six weeks.

“If I were employed, I would have taken time out for rehab,” she says. Since she isn’t, she went straight back to work. As a mother of two, she needed the money.

The problem is a systemic one. In recent years, the number of journalism graduates has been rising at the same time that media companies have been cutting jobs, often by not replacing employees when they retire.

However critics point out that Austrian newspapers are still profitable, and that the public broadcaster is paying its managers hefty salaries. The director general of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, ORF, has an annual salary of €400,000, according to Der Standard. The freelancers are calling for a re-distribution that reflects their role in keeping media companies going.

Taking action

Deeply frustrated, freelance journalist Sahel Zarinfard and four friends decided to take action. They launched the online magazine Paroli in March with an open letter to publishers and editors, asking for a voluntary industry review and an open discussion about freelancers’ working conditions. The journalists’ union also came under fire for not representing the interests of freelancers, who pay their union fees just like employed journalists.

“The union can only take action when we know of concrete problems,” said union head Franz Bauer, defending his organisation’s record. The difficulty is that many freelancers are afraid to speak out against their exploitative contracts for fear of never being asked back.

“You get a reputation pretty quickly,” Zarinfard concurs. “You don’t want to be known as the rebellious one.”

However, there is strength in numbers. Within 24 hours of its launch, more than 300 people signed Paroli’s open letter online. When The Vienna Review went to press, there were 661 signatories, among them well-known names such as Anneliese Rohrer, columnist at Die Presse, and Michael Nikbakhsh, economics editor at the investigative weekly Profil.

The freelancers at ORF, which includes Ö1 and FM4, have also united. Their spokesperson, Sonja Bettel, has been negotiating with the management since last August. But progress is slow.

“We aren’t even talking about salaries yet,” she told The Vienna Review. Instead, the negotiations have been held up by nitpicking over contract wordings and freelancers’ varying importance in an unstable business environment.  To show their frustration, a delegation of ORF freelancers presented the station’s governing board (Stiftungsrat) with a symbolic gift: a cake tray containing a pile of crumbs. The card read, “What is left for us?”

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2 Responses to Still Waiting For A Slice of the Cake

  1. Acme Noman April 25, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Thank you for creating and publishing this article. It goes far along the lines of the Vienna Review asking if Vienna is as wonderful as the promotional products say. My thought is: No. Here is why. I was invited to visit an acquaintance in Vienna. She asked me an endless quantity of questions about my professional expertise. This went on for a few years. Always while having a candle-light dinner, I helped the conversation to flow by answering her. I assumed it is a guest’s responsibility to share, correct? Anyway, before I could look twice, she and the prominent Viennese institution for which she works, were applying my concepts, word by word. She said I was not given credit or paid, as I was not asked by her superiors, the good old boys, to be a consultant. She gave me some gifts (chocolate), as if that would even the score. Also, there was persistent denial on her part and theirs, as a whole. Whereas, my decades of practice and research are unique enough to be recognized immediately in the drab context of her Vienna, she would sometimes say I was influential, but never bring the business she profited from to the surface. Rather I spoke with her director or to the city officials she introduced me to, they all seemed to know nothing of the twenty-first century, until I left their company. Then, they took quick steps to do as I had mentioned possible during the casual inquiries of their structures I had made. All of a sudden, they became cutting-edge cool. Smug, too. They offered a bewildered face, especially when I had asked for regular contracts and fair pay. In retrospect, this seems to me a way the Viennese try to advance themselves. Stealing intellectual work! A take-away point is: Since I occasionally teach university classes, it seems appropriate that the students seeking global participation and employment be prepared with knowing of such a story as mine. Not everyone is focused on win-win relationships. Perhaps the Viennese are so untrusting of people, generally, because they sense their own culture is one that has been built by cheating their neighbors. The strangest fact is, ultimately, struggling freelancers subsidize the glory of some fat suits and their giggling families. This is a cause worth ongoing resistance.

  2. Vienna Review April 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Dear sir, thank you for sharing your experiences about Austria with The Vienna Review. We would like to hear more about it. Please kindly contact us at editor@viennareview.net

    Best regards,
    Vienna Review editorial staff

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