Let fairness drive out the fakes

THIS HAS BEEN THE YEAR in which freelance workers became news. Uber lost a case brought on behalf of some of its drivers. Deliveroo workers struck. The Government's Taylor Review reported. Phillip Hammond's proposed National Insurance hike wilted in the heat of indignation and policy makers across the spectrum wondered whether the UK's legislative framework can sustain 15 million self-employed workers.

Sian Jones; © Tim Dawson

Sian Jones at the podium

Despite this the cornerstone issue of equality between the employed and the self-employed is often lost.

The plight of a group of NUJ members makes this case straightforwardly.

This time last year the international news agency Thomson Reuters decided that a change in its contractual relationship with some of its editorial workers was necessary. In common with much of the British news industry, Thomson Reuters uses a large number (almost certainly more than 20, possibly double that) of freelance subeditors (subs) to check, format and rework articles.

Rather than allow these freelances to operate as sole traders, the news agency decided to require these workers to operate through limited companies. Some of those affected, who undertook the same roles week in week out, were not keen on the change - not least because operating a limited company costs up to £600 a year in accountancy and other compliance costs. They asked their union, the NUJ, to step in.

The subs had reason to be hopeful. The NUJ has had a long and constructive relationship with Thomson Reuters and has been recognised to negotiate on behalf of staff journalists there for decades. Indeed, the proposed changes were generous compared with that offered by some media employers.

When our freelance official asked for a meeting with the company to discuss the changes being suggested for the subs, he was politely declined. The company was only willing to negotiate with the freelances individually, it explained - thereby reducing the possibility for any kind of collective decision making or resistance. It would not even allow freelance members to be accompanied by a union official to their individual meetings - an inalienable right for staffers.

Had the subs been members of staff, the company would have been required to negotiate. Freelances, however, have no statutory right to collective representation, no matter what proportion are union members.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Trades union rights are not the only entitlement that freelances lack. Working time regulations don't apply if you work, but don't have a job. The pay you receive falls outside the minimum wage laws, and obviously there is no security, no matter how long or how well you carry out the same function.

This case illustrates just one of the reasons why Congress' composite motion on insecure employment, which includes much of the NUJ's original motion, is so important. It explains also why GMB, Prospect, Unite and Community are also pushing for action in this sector. Trades unionists of all stripes recognise that the cause of atypical workers must be central to our movement.

Freelance, atypical and gig-economy work form an increasingly important component of the British labour force - now comprising nearly one in seven workers. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in 2008 3.8 million of us were freelance, by 2015 there were 4.6 million self-employed in the UK.

Their issues bring challenges in tow, however. Some of the burgeoning ranks of the self-employed would dearly like conventional jobs. Many of these are the "false freelances" who toil for the same companies week in week out, but are forced to operate as freelances against their will.

The key recognition in the composite motion is that a fair deal for freelances is the best way to stamp out false freelancing. The more rights that freelances have, the less incentive there is for employers to bully unwilling workers into self employment.

These issues also provide some clues as to the kind of organisation and support that many self-employed workers most need. Freelances may now be numerous, but we are not heterogeneous. Casual work has been a staple of the British media since the dawn of mass literacy. In logistics, health provision and construction it is significantly more recent.

For trades unions to serve these groups of workers they need to understand their distinct needs, rather than treating them as a uniform pool of potential recruits. They also need to be willing to fight on their behalf. None of the rights that are so desperately needed will be served up on a platter.

The collapse of the National Insurance hike was significant. It showed that when the self employed seize the opportunity to campaign, they can win. This will only happen if we already have the organisation and the will to fight. The British trades union movement has come a long way in recent years towards recognising the importance of the self-employed and their struggles. This Congress provides a great opportunity to cement that commitment.

  • This piece first appeared in the Morning Star.