Opinion piece by Benjamin Cure
Ausdance VIC was recently approached by Melbourne dance artist Benjamin Cure who wanted to talk about superannuation. Ben has experience as a contract dancer and teacher and as the leader of a dance company. This is his account of a superannuation journey that will be familiar to many. Ausdance VIC has organised a professional seminar with Suzanne Derry, Director and Solicitor from Arts Law in August, to help the dance industry understand the current and changing superannuation requirements. Find out more and Book here
A few years ago, I was becoming fed up with the lack of professional business practice I was seeing in the independent artists and studios around me. It wasn’t as though any of them were acting with any sort of malice to do wrong by me; it was just that there was this pervasive and wide-spread lack of business acumen that was slowly but surely chipping away at me.
It was artists sending me their audition CVs in notepad format, performers sending invoices and charging GST when they weren’t registered for it. It was the emails asking for details of auditions when the details were already on the one-page pdf that the performer had read to find the email address they were contacting me through. It was studios that I was working for asking me to sign what were essentially sham employment contracts that dictated the terms of my work as a contractor with them and my rate, while also telling me I’m not an employee. It was finding out that the first show I performed in professionally (early on in my career) had taken advantage of the performers – with the production staff misappropriating funds to buy brand new MacBooks and then saying they didn’t turn a profit so none of the artists would be paid—even though the production staff and creative team were.
I’d had enough.
All these experiences had whittled away my patience with a wonderful, but highly unregulated and at times soul-crushing, industry. I didn’t want to give up and walk away, but I couldn’t keep going with things as they were. It was during this stage of my career that I knuckled down and wrote a professional development course for independent contractors in the Australian arts sector. I spent months upon months researching and trying to find experts in their fields to contribute to the course to make sure that only the best and most accurate information was getting in. My goal was simple: to lift the standard of business practice for sole traders/contractors in the local dance industry. Many of these artists have gone on to start building their own dance-based businesses in videography, event entertainment and teaching.
The course tackled self-care, mental preparation, physical conditioning, tax law, business practice, OH&S, artistic development, and ultimately finding a way to have a sustainable and long career in a very tricky industry. The content had a significant impact on the trajectories of those artists careers, and I still utilise these resources in my work as a teacher and mentor to emerging artists.
Of everything we covered in this course though, one issue has always stood out as being the hardest to get the industry on board with; superannuation for contractors. Depending on who I was speaking to, I would either be met with stunned confusion, adamant disagreement or apathy. I have never been able to reconcile the lack of clarity that exists in our industry about whether dance teachers contracting to studios should be considered employees for superannuation purposes.
This baffled me.
In my research, I had investigated the ATO’s website and the answer was there, plain as day.
If you pay contractors mainly for their labour, they are employees for superannuation guarantee (SG) purposes and you may need to pay super to a fund for them.
It doesn’t matter if the contractor has an Australian business number (ABN).ATO “Super for contractors”
Yet I was constantly met with battles and disagreements anytime I spoke up about this in public forums or private discussions. Many studios claimed they had confirmation from their accountants that they weren’t required to pay super for contractors. Who was I to argue with qualified accountants? I wouldn’t respect an accountant who tried to correct my pirouettes. But I couldn’t shake the sense of urgency I felt, and the need to address this dissonance between what I was reading the law to be and what the industry around me was practicing.
From a glance, to many it could seem as though I were chasing dollars; trying to squeeze more out of studios who already work on small budgets. However. I can assure you, that is not my motivation. My drive to address this issue goes well beyond the immediate sting of a 10% increase in costs for studios; I am concerned about all of us who work and dance in this space.
A decent superannuation balance, one that makes retirement comfortable, is something that takes decades to build and appreciate so that, when you stop working, you have finances to support yourself with. If we don’t address this problem right now, then entire generations of dance teachers and artists are going to find themselves being slapped across the face with the harsh reality of having little to no super.
According to recent research by Industry SuperFunds, around 35 percent of Australians are not being paid the correct superannuation, and this mostly affects young people in casual or part-time employment in precarious jobs. It’s also an issue with a strong gender component. Women generally retire with about 40 percent less in their superannuation balance than men of the same age. The Australian Human Rights Commission is so concerned that it is campaigning to reduce the gender gap in retirement incomes.
This is a community-wide issue that affects the dance industry disproportionately. In a career that’s so physically demanding, where many cannot continue past a certain age like you would in an office job, it’s so important that we get this resolved now. The impact on all of us in this industry is quite literally compounding upon itself exponentially the longer we wait to act.
One of the biggest things that worries me about addressing this problem is that it’s so hard to step back from the immediate pain that will be felt by employers whose costs are increased; or by the younger workers not fully grasping the importance of caring for their future self’s needs. We all have to step back from just seeing the financial cost or time cost involved in making this change to see the very real impact on peoples’ lives this will have in the long term.
This perspective shift is what drove me to push harder despite the constant resistance; it’s what spurred me on to contacting the ATO and seeking clarification and confirmation. It’s also what motivated me to reach out to Ausdance VIC to try and leverage their amazing pool of resources, networks and standing within the industry to get the ball rolling. My hope for this next stage of growth is to see our industry given the knowledge and support it needs to really flourish and grow. Change is never easy but, it is important.
We also need to be aware that superannuation law is going to change in 2022 and this will have an impact on the dance industry too. One of the important changes is that the current threshold income of $450 per month that applies before an employer is obliged to pay superannuation is being removed. Currently, around 300,000 Australians do not get a superannuation contribution from their employer, and they are mainly young, on low incomes and in part-time work.
I understand the concerns and fears many small businesses may have about these changes—especially after this last 18 months. I get both sides of this experience; I teach in studios all across Victoria as a contractor, but I also run a dance company and hire dancers and teachers for programs. This is something I’m having to learn more about and up-skill myself in too.
Making a commitment to pay superannuation will directly increase the costs associated with many of my programs and plans for the future. But on the flip side, I also know what it’s like to be a young dancer/teacher who has been so eager to work that I’ve accepted the structures and formats offered by studios and businesses. I know that many of my peers are in the same position – without realising that they are being denied something that employers and contracting parties are legally obligated to pay them.
While both studios and dance teachers have a role to play in navigating this delicate and nuanced time of transition, I encourage you to take step back and see the humanity of those it affects, not just the financial cost. This is so much bigger than just a small increase in costs; it’s an investment into the lives and futures of our industry.
Benjamin Curé (Founding Director of Lion Heart Dance Company)
If this article has raised questions or red flags for you about superannuation, artist rights or professional best practice, upskill yourself and better the dance industry by attending Ausdance VIC’s Inside Dance series. Inside Dance is a series of professional learning sessions for you.
Inside Dance is FREE for members, $20 per session for non-members or $33 for all sessions in the August block PLUS an individual membership. Invest in your future, today.
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