At Least Half of the Self-Employed Artists Are in Debt

Cambodian women exercise by the Mekong River at sunrise in Phnom Penh on August 3, 2022. Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP

PHNOM PENH — A recent study has revealed that 50 percent of the artists who are self- employed are in debt. In fact, 30 percent of them were unemployed during the last six months of 2022, which inevitably put them in financial hardship.

The Creative Industries of Cambodia Association for Development and Advocacy (CICADA) conducted a research during which 414 artists and workers in 16 provinces were interviewed. Among the artists contacted during the research, which was done from June through October 2022, a total of 7.2 percent were people with disabilities, and especially physical disabilities.

The study showed that 86 percent of the artists were self-employed, working in music and the performing arts as freelance and independent performers, earning between $953 to $1,814 a year. However, 30 percent of them saw their work disrupted during the last six months of 2022.​

As Say Tola, a co-researcher of the study, explained, most of them, such as musicians, are artists working for the general public and whose income depends almost entirely on the events celebrated in a community.

Moreover, she said, “this income depends on the season. Mostly, they play music or perform from November to April.

“Up to 90 percent of the artists and workers worked for their clients without written contracts or agreements,” the study report read. Some of them manage to survive by working in other sectors, mainly farming.

Despite their efforts to generate income, 45.8 percent of them—most of them being men—are in debt because they have had to borrow money from banks, relatives, microfinance organizations or moneylenders to support themselves and their families.

“At least 80 percent of the artists and workers do not have savings either in cash or in their bank accounts,” the study report explained.  And at least 22 percent of the artists and workers are likely to change their field of work in order to improve their financial situation, the report read.

However, people interviewed did not say in which sectors they may consider working due to the lack of support for artists in their fields, Tola said.

“Some workers said they want to leave the cultural industry because no incentives, such as financial and non-financial support, are provided for them to continue working in the sector,” the study found.

Non-cultural sectors have accounted for 25.10 percent of their income, the report said. Seasonal agricultural activities provide with a means of subsistence those living in remote areas where cultural work is seasonal.

A total of 50 percent of the artists and workers contacted during the study said that the cultural sector is their primary source of income, and 24.4 percent of the other artists said that they were making the same amount of money in the cultural and non-cultural sectors.

“This result suggests that at least 25.10 percent of artists and workers did not rely wholly on cultural work for livelihood maintenance,” the study said.

The majority of the self-employed cultural artists and workers had never received any benefits, such as insurance and social protection from their clients or employers beside payments for their work.

Cultural industries (CIs) contribute at least 1.53 percent of Cambodia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Core cultural activities account for 91.4 percent of this contribution, with related supply chains such as equipment accounting for 8.6 percent.

The creative economy is centered on the cultural and creative industries. Many workers and artists in those fields lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting hard the tourism sector they mostly rely on. This brought about socioeconomic change that has had negative effects on those workers and artists, the study said.

In its report, the Creative Industries of Cambodia Association for Development and Advocacy (CICADA) is asking for incentives, such as grants and training programs, to be implemented to support those artists and workers in those fields and those who would like careers in the country’s cultural industries.

CICADA also recommended setting up a digital platform so that all artists and workers in these fields can connect, communicate, and share resources and opportunities related to cultural and creative work and activities in the country.

Funded by the UNESCO International Fund for Cultural Diversity, the study was conducted with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and the support of the ministry’s provincial departments in the country. 

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