09 January 2008

Late payment (revisited) and the NUJ

Late payment is a real bug bear of mine but I honestly hadn't expected to be kicking off about it yet again so early into 2008.

The following true story would be funny if it wasn't so bloody tragic and ironic.

A freelance colleague was commissioned by the National Union of Journalists to write an article on the issue of late payment for The Journalist, the union's magazine. The hack duly submitted an invoice and waited out the terms of payment, in this case 30 days. By the end of the payment period, no payment had been made by the NUJ. There then ensued a number of calls and emails, in which the journalist concerned was fobbed off with excuses about the Christmas period. And when they requested the statutory compensation and interest for late payment, as is their right, the response by The Journalist's editor was, apparently, laughter.

Now bear in mind that the NUJ prides itself on campaigning for better payment practice pretty much across the entire industry. Not to mention campaigning for better rates, ie above NUJ minimum (our journo in question had taken the NUJ's own advice on accepting this commission and asked for more money, only to be told the fee would be NUJ minimum!). The irony of a campaigning union failing to adhere to its own policy on this very issue is staggering. Not to mention the hypocrisy.

As freelances, we run businesses. And like all small businesses, we want to be paid on time so that we in turn can pay others, and our bills. Picture this scenario - you go to a supermarket, fill your trolley with groceries, queue at the till and are told "that'll be £100, please". Do you a) say "sorry, I'll pay you in 45 days' time, and then only if you chase me for payment" or b) pay up? It's not like we have a choice, is it? If you want to eat, you better be able to pay on the spot (unless you are the Queen, in which case you probably have a nice line of credit at Fortnum and Mason). Picture the same scenario when it comes to paying your mortgage, the gas bill, the phone bill, your plumber, the car mechanic who serviced your Skoda... Not one of these businesses will allow you not to pay until you feel like it. If you haven't shelled out within 30 days, you can expect a red bill, followed by legal action. And probably being cut off, in the case of your utilities.

Yet, for some reason, us freelances are expected to wait for payment until it's convenient. In some cases, this can be several months after publication. It is rife across the entire industry and only a very few publications pay promptly (such as The Guardian, which usually pays within a week). It's even worse when it's your own union that asks you to write about the problem then fails to cough up within the payment period and, to rub salt into the proverbial, refuses to pay up the statutory compensation and interest.

I'm not currently a member of the NUJ, for a number of reasons. Every time I'm on the verge of rejoining, an incident occurs that puts me right off again. This is one of them. And the NUJ wonders why it is so hard to recruit new members...

Times have changed. We are no longer in the world of the closed shop and 99% of members being in-house staff with a father of the chapel. Far more journalists work freelance these days and the NUJ needs to start looking after them seriously, rather than just paying lip service. And that includes paying on time when rank and file members write for its publications.

2 comments:

Tim Gopsill said...

Hi I'm editor of the Journalist, NUJ. Season's greets etc

Glad to see you picked up Tina Walsh's 'story' -- I suggested she got on to media columns or blogs because it's too good to be true isn't it.

This is what happened: she offered the piece and I said I'd buy it. I authorised payment for her invoice before the mag came out but there was no-one in NUJ finance dept to pay her for 3 weeks over Xmas - not an 'excuse' but the truth - I was away myself, and when got back I got her paid at once. She was actually paid in 35 days, which is not 30, but it's not much over, and the reason for delay is genuine.

It's true I did laugh when she kept on and on about the NUJ not practising what it preaches. She was annoying me and it was better to laugh than shout at her.

So why are you tying in all this stuff about people not being paid for months and months? which I know about as well as you - not just thru union work but as having been a freelance myself for 13 years.

I'm actually quite looking forward to see what uses the story gets - on the face of it it is a good un -particularly to see how many contact me for comment !!???

Come one, join the union- it'll help you get paid!

wordsmith_for_hire said...

Thanks for your comments.

FWIW, Xmas does not last 3 weeks and it IS a poor excuse in my book to not pay someone. I find it hard to believe no one in NUJ accounts was available to pay a contributor for 3 entire weeks. And besides, it's irrelevant whether payment was 5 days late or 5 months - it's the principle. Late is late, full stop.

Whether she was annoying you or not, your attitude comes across as unprofessional. I commission stuff myself and I have definitely laughed at some of my contributors, but never to their face, only behind their back, no matter how annoying they were. My policy is always to be polite and professional.

Why am I tying this story to the issue of not being paid for months? Because - as I said - there is a principle here and the law is on our side. If the NUJ is allegedly campaigning for better payment practice elsewhere, it needs to put its money where its mouth is. Get your own house in order first.

And actually, I don't have problems getting paid, despite not having rejoined the union. I quote the Late Payment Act on my invoices and pretty much all of my clients pay up on time. Only twice have I had to charge interest and compensation and only once have I had to send a letter before action - the recipient paid up before I took the next step of starting court action.