Freelancing needs a policy agenda of its own

Philip Ross

The self employed are often the ‘most entrepreneurial, go-getting people in Britain’ . That is what Ed Milliband said during his conference speech when he placed a commitment to the self employed and albeit freelance workers at the heart of his election pledges for the general election. One of Labour’s six pledges is to provide equal rights to the self employment. As Ed Mililband noted ‘two out of three don’t have a pension, one in five can’t get a mortgage. They don’t want special treatment. They just want a fair shot’.

Ready to be your own boss

Commentators have reflected on what he might have meant by this since employment rights are for employed people. We understood it because the narrative that Ed Miliband is offering parallels what our recent LFIG report entitled ‘The Freelancing Agenda’ has offered. This report discusses the growth in the number of freelancers in our economy and the fact that it set to out strip the number of those working in the public sector by 2016. When we wrote the report we concluded that freelancers do want rights: they want rights at work, not necessarily employment rights. The right to a contract, the right to a pension, the right to be paid (and paid on time), the right to access similar benefits as their employed counterparts such as paternity and maternity pay, the right to fair treatment by the welfare system. They want the right to be able to compete and win government procurement contracts for services. Now the accountants in the room will be demurring that they can get some benefits already, that they have some latent rights on maternity and paternity and the right to charge late internet on late payments. This is true but this utopian view of the world is very different on the ground for the precariat and other self employed workers who are freelancing.

Many of those ‘in business on their own account’ find it virtually impossible to access credit and mortgages, a problem facing small employers too. Toby Perkins MP Labour’s shadow small business minister told the Labour Finance and Industry Group (LFIG) fringe meeting at the Labour conference that he had met a small business owner who couldn’t get a mortgage but ironically the people he employed could. Bill Thomas, author of Labour’s small business task force told the meeting that procurement contracts are corrupted by the fact that the intermediaries who do win government contracts that hire freelancers exploit the situation by charging ‘margin on margin’. What this means is that a graphic designer could be on a project but find that intermediaries such as the contract owners and agencies could be taking 40% of their fee. It is skimming as much, if not more, off the work than the person doing the work. This is bad for the freelancer and bad for the end client. One solution must be for some transparency of contract terms, especially for government contracts.

All of this is important ground as the beating heart of Labour isn’t just in the classroom and the hospital but needs to also be in the toolbox of the tradespeople, the keyboard of the freelance office worker and the pen of graphic designer and throughout the ranks of those working self employed.

The role for a future Labour government must be to firstly recognise, then nurture and protect this growing army of freelance and self employed workers. But it is not a one size fits all approach, the concerns of the blue collar construction industry differ from those white collar IT workers and may differ again from those in the creative industries. But they all need addressing. Issues around forced self employment need to be resolved as do those of tax avoidance so that the genuine self employed can be focused on. In my opinion Labour would do well to revisit the Section 44 rules around agency workers that pushes unscrupulous firms use to push people into umbrella companies, while remembering that’s umbrella firms do have a legitimate role to play.

There is plenty of good research on freelancing and self-employment done by Cranfield University and Kingston universities. Demos and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerc (RSA) are also contributing greatly to it. There is a growing movement too – Joe Dullroy and the European Freelancers’ Movement recently submitted a manifesto to the European parliament. Their key demands? “RECOGNISE FREELANCERS! GIVE US ACCESS! COUNT US! GIVE US A VOICE! TREAT US FAIRLY!”

Our LFIG report recognises that it can’t be fixed by a few policy changes that freelancing needs its own policy agenda. That is why we have developed the freelancing charter. Its goals are simple: to provide a platform for developing future policy – to give them ‘a fair shot’.

The aim is to give some modern rights to the self employed, to empower them as recognised and true economic agents. It is not just rights at work but the right to be recognised as a business by tax authorities and their clients. The will to solve this problem I believe is there, the challenge is for freelancers, their groups and network to build it themselves.

Ed Miliband said Labour should be ‘using our historic values to fight for those at the frontline of the modern workforce. I’m talking about a group of people that we in the Labour Party haven’t talked about that much and we need to talk about them a lot more. The growing army of our self-employed’.

At LFIG, Labour’s leading business network, are talking about it and we are planning to hold a series of round table events over the next few months based around our charter and would welcome expressions of interest from freelancers, the self employed, trade associations and unions who wish to take part. The role of Labour needs to empower and enable groups to come together to collaborate and co-operate to define the future that they want. There is nothing to lose, but everything to gain. Come and join the conversation.

Phiilp Ross is a member of the Labour Finance and Industry Group and a co-author on their recent report ‘The Freelancing Agenda’. To be involved in future discussion please contact [email protected]

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