Women's work that's never done

Christina Zaba has been one of the many proofreaders who toil through the night for a pittance. At t

I used to find them at the school gates. The freelance editorial subcontractors I needed were standing right there, in sweaters and jeans, lunch boxes in hand. Five years ago I was a freelance production manager for a major international publisher based in state-of-the-art headquarters in the Home Counties, turning around four or more academic books every month. It was prestige work: you edited the typescript, dealt with the author's queries, the proofreading, the illustrations, the index, all in a few days. You had to subcontract; but with payment of only £1.53 per page for a so-called "light edit", or £2.65 per page for a "full edit", subcontractors' fees were always difficult.

"Do you want to learn proofreading?" I asked. I knew my victims. One, a married mother-of-four, had a First in English from Cambridge; the other, a mother-of-three, had a degree from University College London in English.

They jumped at the chance. One agreed then and there to proofread 300-page academic books for £50 a throw, flat fee. The other thanked me and said she'd do it for no money, because she loved books. It was complete and utter exploitation - and I knew it would earn me just enough money to get by.

Huge profits are being made by global media corporations thanks to highly educated people, typically women, sitting alone at the kitchen table at night working for a pittance. In a survey carried out by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in 2003, 38 per cent of respondents, 80 per cent of them women, had earned less than £10,000 over the previous 12 months; 64 per cent of them were in effect working full-time, between 21 and 40 hours a week.

For many, it's a hard struggle. "The clients wear you out," says Lesley Ward, an editor with more than a decade of experience. "They don't pay on time, or they don't stick to what was agreed. When you ring up, they'll say, 'Oh, haven't we paid you? Sorry, we forgot.' There's nothing you can do.

"I was working seven days a week, and in the end I burned out and couldn't work at all. I had to ask my mother for financial help. I work in Blockbuster Video now. I don't think I'll ever go back to freelance editing."

Penny Williams, chair of the SfEP council, says: "The publishing industry absolutely relies on freelance labour. But many people join us thinking it's going to be a good career, and find that it isn't."

It began in the mid-1980s. While battles were being fought at Wapping, a quieter but no less dramatic revolution was taking place among the dreaming spires. Oxford University Press's 500-year-old printing operation and its corresponding in-house desk-editing department began to shut down as an accountant-led management looked at costs, savings and global branding in the light of new electronic typesetting possibilities.

OUP was not alone. As streamlining took place right across publishing, well-established relationships of mutual loyalty and skills between dedicated in-house staff were brutally dismantled. People lost their jobs, turned themselves inside out, went back as self-employed contractors. Most of them were women.

"Book publishing is a women's area," notes the freelance author and editor Jenny Vaughan. "When it all got deregulated, many women went freelance, thinking that it would be easier to combine with childcare. It wasn't, though. Clients don't expect to pay you enough to live on. To earn a decent living you have to work six, seven days a week."

And you can forget about employment rights and benefits. The minimum wage doesn't apply to the self-employed; nor do they receive sick pay, holiday pay, maternity benefits, health and safety checks, risk assessments in their place of work, or any contribution to a pension. They have no career path and promotion, or social contact with colleagues. They must supply their own work space, office furniture, computer, phone and other equipment. The annual expenses of editorial freelances run at between £3,000 and £10,000.

The situation is not very different for journalists, especially on regional papers. The National Union of Journalists' Freelance Well-being survey of 2004 showed that only roughly a quarter of freelances could survive without either living in shared accommodation or having a partner who was also earning. Meanwhile, regional newspapers are flush with profit. Northcliffe Newspapers, which publishes more than 100 regional titles and has just been put up for sale, made a £102m profit over the past year; it expects to improve on that figure by 25 per cent this year. The company pays its freelance writers as little as £35 per 1,000 words.

NUJ members are the lucky ones: with the muscle of the union behind them, they can hope to train in negotiation skills, compare rates of pay, organise, and ask for more. But recruiting women freelances to the union, any union, remains problematic. Although the National Group on Homeworking's most recent nationwide survey showed that 94 per cent of homeworkers are women, men still predominate in the NUJ.

"My union, the ACTT, was decimated by Thatcher, and it's never recovered," says Sarah Pullman, a single parent. At 52, as a freelance TV producer/director with 27 years of experience, she should be at the top of her game; in fact she's finding it a daily struggle to survive. "I'm not a tiger in the boardroom, and I don't sleep my way to the top," she says laconically. Juggling a full-time career with parenting, Pullman can't spare the time to drink with the boys.

Her earnings keep falling. "Budgets are getting lower," she says. "And the owners want to cream off more and more profit. But I can't just say, 'Sod you,' because I've got nowhere to go. As an independent, you get no protection. You deliver or you're out. It's a joke. The media glamour world everyone's so impressed by is non-existent. The companies are making a fortune, but it's individuals who are taking the hit."

It's not just a question of money. Working from home can be hazardous, with strain injuries a particular problem. Yet, as recently as October, the Health and Safety Executive admitted that it had no real prescriptive guidelines on office risk assessment in the home. Then there's the emotional stress. "For years I couldn't pick up a pen," says one editor. "I'd spend the day sitting at a table looking at a typescript and thinking, 'This is a monster, this is horrible.'" Half of the respondents to the NUJ freelance survey said that they had experienced depression "often".

As Baroness Prosser noted at this year's TUC conference, the UK still has the widest gender pay gap in Europe, with part-time women earning 40 per cent less than men. Currently, at the end of their working lives, only 12 per cent of British women qualify for a full state pension.

Behind their glamorous facades, the hidden, deregulated working structures of the media frequently make a mockery of the term "career". Your good education, energy and drive won't necessarily save you - especially not if you're a woman. For myself, I found the gratitude of those I was exploiting too much to stand. I wrapped it up, gave them the contacts, waved goodbye, became a journalist. And then I joined a trade union.

Christina Zaba sits on the freelance industrial council of the National Union of Journalists