The Rsa Guest Post: “Why It’s Time for Freelancers to Pipe up and Get Organised”

Of all the trends sweeping the world of work – start-up culture, flexible workspace, millennial angst – the growth in freelancing has the greatest potential for impact and reaction. That’s because while other workplace trends affect how we work, freelancing also affects how we live.

Problems that stop at the office door for traditional workers follow freelancers home. Matters which are remotely resolved for workers – benefits, securities, pensions – independents must care for alone, if at all.

Until recently, this has been a manageable trade-off for increased personal flexibility. Like roaming medieval knights, freelancers were scarce, highly skilled, well paid and self-selecting. But in recent years the ranks of independent workers have swelled. Freelancing has become part of the everyday vernacular, along with start-up, online, recession and cutbacks.

The rapid growth in freelancing has implications for both individuals and society. As Steven Toft highlighted in his recent post for the RSA, while the number of Britain’s self-employed has grown by almost half a million since 2008, more than half of them earn 12,000 GBP a year or less, which is almost the minimum wage. Exactly what will happen to this mass of lowly paid and unprotected freelancers in ill fortune and old age remains a social experiment waiting to run.

At the same time, as the RSA’s Benedict Dellot observed, the growing number of freelancers gives this demographic a potential political opportunity. He calculated that Britain’s self-employed will overtake the number of public sector employees by 2017/18. Though it has not yet been noticed by the governing class, this rising opportunity for political agency has not gone unnoticed by freelancers.

The reaction begins: freelancers movement website

This year may be remembered as the start of a new chapter in employment politics. Across Europe, freelancers are getting organized into a cohesive movement, and are making demands of governments and employers.

At the fore of this movement is the Freelancers Europe campaign, which is rallying independent workers to sign a five-point manifesto ahead of the European Parliament elections. The campaign – operated mostly online, with events and outreach in coworking spaces – aims to collect a modest 10,000 supporters in its initial outing. There are plans for future larger actions that will demonstrate the size and strength of Europe’s freelancing class, which is estimated to be almost 9 million strong.

The Freelancers Europe campaign is the result of cooperation between a coalition of national organizations representing independents in EU countries. These national freelancers associations have been working quietly for years to recruit members and create political lobbying skills. Some – such as the PCG in the UK, and the PZO in the Netherlands – have existed for more than a decade, but have gained new impetus with the growth of the demographic.

Freelance organizing took a step forward in 2008, when several national organizations joined together to create the European Forum of Independent Professionals (EFIP), a regional meet-up. EFIP has since commissioned some of the only available research into the size and needs of the freelancing demographic, and it instigated the Freelancers Europe campaign, with its manifesto of actionable demands.

The freelancers manifesto: five demands from independent workers

The freelancers manifesto has five simple points. It asks EU authorities to recognise freelancers as a legitimate employment and business category – a simple ask, but something overlooked by many bureaucrats. Once recognised, freelancers are seeking access to government services and funding, from which they are often excluded.

Better statistics are a key demand; the 9 million figure is based on estimates, as official data about the demographic are patchy at best. Freelancers’ organizations are requesting to be consulted by governments when drafting policy. And finally, businesses are targeted with a demand to treat freelancers fairly, with better contracts and condition.

The manifesto makes no mention of hard policies, such as regulation, taxation and social security. That’s because most such daily concerns are set at a national level, with limited EU influence. Nevertheless, the campaign and its manifesto marks the first time independent workers have coordinated to advance a set of collective demands. Across Europe, the freelancers’ movement has begun.

A union of independents?

The lead actor of the freelancers’ movement globally is the Freelancers Union, which launched in New York in 2003. Not an official union, it is a non-profit organization with over 225,000 members who sign up online, attracted by sharp graphic design styled on retro propaganda art.

In just over a decade, the Freelancers Union has set up its own health insurance company and retirement savings plan, and opened a health care centre and a coworking space for its members. This focus on services has attracted some criticism from the more politically minded, to which the organization’s founder, the entrepreneurial Sara Horowitz, responds that she is meeting the most immediate concerns of her members.

Horowitz expresses a vision for “new mutualism”, meaning a revival of member-run support organizations such as mutual societies and cooperative businesses. Rather than wait for governments to respond, she calls on freelancers to go ahead and build their own solutions.

Traditional trade unions slow off the mark

This flurry of freelancer activism has caught off guard the traditional guardians of the working class, the trade unions. At a conference in Berlin in March, union representatives from around the world discussed how to address independent workers. Most expressed a desire to simply subsume freelancers back into the ranks of the traditional workforce.

As long as unions continue to misread freelancers as wayward workers, they will fail to have any relevance for this demographic. Although they may have deep concerns about their finances, their social safety net and their prospects in old age, survey after survey finds the majority of freelancers have no desire to return to a company job.

An independent freelancers’ movement that can articulate a balanced vision of personal freedoms, political agency, government support and mutually-created social protections is more likely to appeal to today’s independent worker.