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Freedom and security at work: can we have both?

Brendan Martin, 3 June 2013

Is it possible to secure rights as a worker without a formal employment contract? If not, where does that leave freelancers?

And can we enable employees to enjoy some of the upsides of the freelance life, such as more control of their time?

Those are key questions for social policy and organised labour, and last week I took part in two contrasting discussions about them.

At the Hub Islington in London -- sister to the Hub Kings Cross where Public World is based --  there was a meeting to discuss how freelance workers can win more rights.

The next day I was down the road at Unison, the public service workers union, for a seminar about home care workers, a growing number of whom are self-employed personal assistants.

Both events were fascinating, and explored many of the same themes, such as personal isolation, income insecurity and power inequalities. But the solutions favoured by most participants at each were quite different.

The Islington gathering was composed mostly of freelancers in the creative industries who are happy to be self-employed and have overcome some of the isolation by hot desking at the Hub.

But they also want to tackle a range of other problems, such as broken contracts, low fees, late payment and copyright infringement.

Although some contract workers are determined to remain self-employed to avoid being taxed as an ‘employee’, most at the Islington meeting would like to be earning enough for that to bother them.

Yet no-one there said they wanted a ‘job’, because they much prefer the relative autonomy and flexibility of freelance life. Anyway, they take it as given that self-employment is the new normal.

It is indeed increasingly normal for Britain’s home care workforce. Not only are most on zero-hours contracts, but there is a growing number of ‘personal assistants’ contracted on a self-employed basis directly to the people they care for.

They enjoy few if any of the advantages of freelancing, much less the tax benefits gained by some highly paid professionals -- think BBC -- who operate as contractors despite having only one employer.

In fact, personal assistants suffer the worst of both worlds, combining insecurity and isolation, and no sick pay or holidays, with a very high level of commitment to an employer who relies on them continuously.

To protect vulnerable workers and to catch professional tax avoiders, HMRC certainly needs to crack down on bogus self-employment.

But what about genuine freelancers? As many of the protections of employment law do not extend to them, can we reform commercial law and social protection systems to improve their security and wellbeing too?

There tends to be an underlying assumption that the price freelancers pay for their freedom is insecurity, and the price employees pay for their security is lack of freedom. But many workers now have neither, and our aspiration should be both.

That sets a dual challenge for unions.

On the one hand they must offer services and organising leadership to gain more security and wellbeing for all workers, whether formally employed or freelance.

But they must also become champions of the right kinds of flexibility in the workplace, and of innovation in the way working time and work itself are organised.

The temptation is to focus on one or other aspect of the dual challenge. But to ensure their appeal across the whole of modern society unions must do both.

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