The self-employed have been abandoned during the coronavirus crisis

Roy Rickhuss

While the pandemic has hit all parts of the economy hard, the self-employed have been particularly badly affected. Around one in seven workers in the UK are self-employed – roughly 15% of the workforce – and many of them have seen their work dry up from the day lockdown began. Millions of the self-employed have also fallen through the gaps in the government income support schemes and continue to be excluded from financial help. They have been failed by the government.

Research by the Resolution Foundation shows almost half of self-employed people have lost work due to lack of demand and lockdown restrictions, or for health or caring reasons such as shielding and childcare. Our members have told us similar stories, with 58% experiencing a large fall in income due to the pandemic and many failing to qualify for help from the government’s income support schemes. Like most other self-employed workers, our members are suffering real financial hardship. Many of them feel – and have been – forgotten by the government.

Despite the precarious situation facing the self-employed, who are not entitled to sick pay and other benefits, the government is now thinking about raising National Insurance contributions for self-employed workers as a quid pro quo. Yet what the government fails to understand is that self-employed workers are often at a significant disadvantage to full-time employees. This crisis has exposed this inequality and the precarious situation faced by so many self-employed people. Rather than hiking National Insurance contributions, the government should take a holistic approach to the self-employed workforce, which includes introducing additional and long-term support.

That’s why we are working with Prospect trade union to launch a new independent inquiry into the future of self-employment. We’ll be assessing the crisis facing the UK’s five million-strong self-employed workforce in the wake of the pandemic and will map out long-term solutions for the government to listen to, learn from and adopt. Backed by Martin Lewis and with commissioners from across the political, academic and industry divide, we’ll be looking at issues such as the future tax regime and safety-net for these workers, their job security and employment rights, and how to improve government understanding of the self-employed and avoid unequal support for different types of workers.

Our self-employed community has grown significantly over recent years and – as a result of the impact of the pandemic on our economy – we will likely see more people seek out new ways of working. As trade unions, we’re proud champions of the self-employed and freelance community across the UK, and we’re here to help and support them. However, the self-employed need more support from the government, and it is crucial that they get this right.

If self-employed workers are to continue to play a significant and equitable role in the labour market of the future, they need to be placed on a level playing field with employees and treated justly. Through the inquiry with Prospect trade union, we’ll be working to ensure that no worker, regardless of their employment status, is left behind.

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