Fighting for freelances

THE STRUGGLE by Deliveroo couriers to resist changes to their pay rates this summer generated some surprise. Collective action by freelances is apparently novel in a world where grateful gofers can be summoned with a smart-phone. Surely the pound-a-mile pedal-powered pedlars operate as independent business said some?

Engaging cheap labour with an app is new, and some of the food delivered might be outré: but employers exploiting disproportionate market power to impose impoverishing piece-rate conditions is as old as market economics. So too is the struggle by unions to rebalance that relationship.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

My union, the National Union of Journalists, has battled on behalf of precarious workers for over a century.

Freelance journalists have been pivotal to Britain's media since the dawn of newspapers. "Just-in-time" and "on demand" are defining paradigms of news dissemination, and the NUJ has been insisting on fair pay for freelancers from the outset. Agreements covering independent contributors' rates have formed part of our negotiations since before the First World War; that fight continues to this day.

The NUJ's approach recognises that the vast majority of the self-employed are neither entrepreneurs nor business, but workers. They need union protection as much, if not more, than those with with permanent contracts.

We have agreements covering freelance rates with national newspapers, magazines and broadcasters. Make no mistake though, today's environment for promoting freelance interests is challenging - but we are campaigning to change that.

As freelances form an increasing proportion of the workforce, they clearly need similar statutory protections to those afforded to other workers. Some simple changes would make a difference, others might require imagination from legislators and employers.

No one should toil for less than the minimum wage. If organisations paying any workers below the minimum wage were made liable for prosecution, it would immediately shake up the anything-goes zero-hours culture. A simple weekly calculation of pay divided by hours worked should be sufficient to initiate a challenge.

A Deliveroo driver

A Deliveroo worker shows the contract two fingers

Non-employed workers should also be given rights to trades union representation. Unions currently have no statutory rights in cases such as Deliveroo. The couriers' achievements there resulted from admirable collective action, but not all freelances can replicate that. Where more than half of a group of workers want union representation, that should be their right, as should support in day-to-day issues that arise between workers and employers.

Treating freelances equitably is about more than ensuring that takeaway meals are not sour with the tang of exploitation, however. Key sectors of the UK's economy rely on self-employed labour. There are more than a million freelances in advertising, film-making and the digital industries, for example.

Many enjoy the flexibility of the way that they work. Provision for such basics as sick pay, holidays and pensions, however, should be an absolute right. Help building careers and developing talents that can be sustained over a working life should be part of a broader economic strategy for the long-term health of industries in which Britain leads the world. Rethinking the tax and benefit systems with the self-employed at their centre, rather than an inconvenient afterthought, would be a useful start.

Later this month, the NUJ and Equity will take a motion to the Trades Union Congress calling on the labour movement to commit itself to creating a better statutory backdrop for freelances. It will be a chance for Britain's six and a half million trades unionists to affirm that freelances are workers every bit as much as those with enduring contracts. We are also asking the International Labour Organisation to adopt a convention covering the rights of freelances (or precarious workers, as they are sometimes known). Global recognition is a useful boost for a campaign facing an uphill struggle.

Just as important as approving a motion, however, is that unions and government put their hearts into supporting the rights of freelance workers. If that happens, a time may come where we can all summon goods and services with an app - without the guilt that our convenience is predicated on workers' misery.