Let’s show Britain’s 4.6 million self-employed people they have a home in the labour movement

Philip Ross

Ready to be your own boss

This start of this month saw the start of the new tax year and what is going to be different about this coming year is that more people than ever before are going to be submitting tax returns.

Not because of population growth, but because more people than ever before are now working as self employed. By the term self employed we mean, freelancers, traditional self-employed workers, small business owners. The growth in the numbers of self employed, whom the Royal Society of Arts predict will exceed those in the public sector by the end of 2017, isn’t just a British phenomenon but an international one. That is one in seven of the workforce, about 4.6m people, or 15 per cent of those in work and is at its highest point for 40 years.

That is why we published a new report from Co-operatives UK. Not Alone looks at trade unions and co-operative solutions for the self-employed. It is supported by the wider labour movement, and it looks at the lessons we can learn about how at home and internationally on how we can modernise our labour movement to embrace this change and help people flourish.

In the US and Europe huge rises in self employment have also been witnessed and there, just like in the UK, the self employed are not one class of people but range in terms of skills and income. For example, on one hand, there are independent professionals, iPros, who people like IT professionals, engineers and consultants on relatively good incomes. But on the other hand there are also low paid – and often the lowest paid workers – whom have been termed the self employed precariat, who may be both skilled or unskilled.

What is clear is that both are contributing strongly to the growth of the British, by helping firms to innovate through the provision of their skills and to grow through the provision of their labour. It has long been argued that freelancers are one of the dynamos of the British economy. But they are seldom recognised as such by the left, instead they are often considered victims in need of help. They do need help, but they also need respect and recognition. The help that they need is in being empowered, we may not be able to change the market but we can empower those within it. That is what our progressive labour movement did in the last century and we need to do it again now in this one.

As a nation and as a labour movement we need to recognise that the self-employed cover a broad spectrum of from the affluent self-employed profession across to the self employed precariat on the lowest wages. For the precariat in particular we need to look at rights and protections for workers. Not employment rights per se, but there are rights at work nonetheless. For instance the right to be paid on time, the right to a contract and reforms that will deliver paternity and maternity rights and pay to the self employed. I believe that we need not just a new deal, but a new approach, one that goes beyond government and policy to the wider labour movement. An approach that will see our unions as much for the self employed as they are for the employed, using their muscle to make sure people are paid on time and given proper contracts. That our co-operatives are agile enough to bring workers together to share costs, resources and work, helping people to recognise that they can be self employed and part of a co-op. Thirdly for mutuals societies to help workers get and guarantee loans.

It can be done, the answers are out there, as are examples of great practice. What we need now is the will and means to bring them together based around a coherent strategy for the entire labour movement. Our report highlighted examples of British co-ops and unions working together, to bring organising ability and muscle together with the collaborative entrepreneurial virtues of a co-op together. It notes how Dutch workers have banded together to provide mutual insurance for sick pay. It notes too how the steel city of Pittsburgh how the steel union and co-ops are forging together. A good example for the UK is the Community union, which is very progressive in recognising the importance of helping long-term employed and self-employed workers. That is why they are standing by workers in Redcar and Port Talbot, come what may.

Self-employment is an issue and an opportunity, for all generations. It is natural territory for Labour. All the political parties are recognising this shift in employment but it was through organising workers, and helping them collaborate in co-ops and in pooling their wealth through mutuals, that made this country great. It was not speculation and hedge-funds that made this country prosperous.

Our report shines a light on the good practice within the labour movement in support of the self-employed. Its message is that the self-employed don’t have to stand alone. It calls upon those great cousins of the labour movement – unions, co-ops and mutuals- to work together to deliver recognition, organisation and collaboration for Britain’s growing army of self-employed workers.


The TUC is holding a free seminar, Rethinking Organising: Unions and the New Precariat, on Tuesday April 12.  It is open to all.

Philip Ross started his own company as a freelancer last month. The Not Alone report, written by Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and Philip Ross can be found here.

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