Why Europe Needs a Freelancers’ Movement

If you are someone who works alone for yourself, or on short-term contracts for others, you might wonder why you’d ever need anyone else’s support.

The reality is that the rhetoric of freelancing overemphasizes the value of individualism. The most successful independent workers are those who have strong networks. This paradox regarding business hints that perhaps there are other areas of life where we can gain more by aligning ourselves with others.

Take politics, for example. Today governments make policy decisions about work, taxation, health and social security that often affect freelancers adversely. Yet as an individual, you have no ability to influence that policy to your advantage. You could write a letter to the responsible minister, but policy is rarely changed on the basis of an individual suggestion.

These days politics is most influenced by lobby groups representing companies. Large corporations long ago learnt the effectiveness of teaming up with their competitors to form lobbies, which spend money to get favorable policies pushed through parliaments.

In the face of such powerful corporate political machinery, combined with government ministers who don’t understand and don’t hear from independent workers, what are freelancers to do if they wish to change anything?

Freelancer, you’re not alone

The first step toward improving freelancing conditions is for independent workers to realize they’re not alone. The best available statistics tell us there are 8.5 million independent professionals in Europe, making up four per cent of the total workforce. A wider definition of the self-employed – including craft workers, shop keepers and other solo traders – takes the number up to 32.9 million. There’s a lot of differences between the various types of independent workers, but they all have a few basic issues in common that could be solved through collective action.

The sheer size of the independent worker demographic is enough to give it moral and political clout. After all, there are minority groups with less strength in numbers who have been able to change government policy in their favor.

Consider the size of mainstream political parties. In the United Kingdom, the ruling Conservative Party has just 134,000 paying members. An even starker example is the right-wing nationalist party UKIP, which has managed to scare the mainstream British political establishment into adopting its rhetoric, even though its membership base is just 32,500. By comparison, Europe’s biggest existing freelancers’ organization, the UK’s PCG, already has 21,000 members.

Why create a movement?

If gaining political clout is possible from our existing demographic base, why is it necessary or desirable? Isn’t freelancing good enough as it is?

Even if you consider your independent condition to be alright, there are compelling reasons to get behind a political movement for freelancers. It makes sense because things could always be better. Present advantages require constant defense against other political forces that might seek to reduce them. Take a lesson from large corporations. Although they are at the top of the economic food chain, with plenty of tax advantages and regulatory loopholes, they still pour huge amounts of money into forming political lobbies to ensure they stay in their dominant position, and to force ever greater concessions out of governments.

While things might good be for some, there are other independent workers not entirely enjoying their situation. There’s an ever downward pressure on the rates many freelancers can charge, while living and operating costs are constantly creeping up across Europe. Taking care of one’s own health care and saving for the future becomes ever more difficult. A lot of social support systems are created for full-time workers, excluding the self-employed, meaning there’s no safety net when things go wrong. Those doing it tough need better protection and support.

What needs to change?

Our employment systems are built upon the old fashioned binary classification of employers and workers. This has to be updated to reflect the reality today. Ahead of a total overhaul our socio-economic structures, we need to stand up as a collective body and demand a few changes from those in power.

A campaign at the European level has to target EU-wide institutions. The European Parliament and the European Commission make laws and directives that filter down to national governments. These institutions are not in direct control of national legislation about things such as employment and social security, but they have a big influence. And there are a few simple things they can do to improve operating conditions for freelancers in Europe.

To start with, we need EU bodies to recognize freelancers. This might seem like an obvious thing – to acknowledge the existence of a large group of independent workers with specific conditions and needs. But in reality many laws are made without even considering how they will impact upon freelancers. We need to be remembered when policy is drafted that might affect us.

We need to be given access. Many government services and opportunities are closed to freelancers. For example, the EC often publishes calls for funding for various programs, but only companies or non-profit groups may apply. The idea of an independent worker applying is not even considered. Similarly, we can’t access many social security programs, training schemes or tax benefits.

Count us. That’s a simple demand. Yet there are very few reliable statistics about how many independent workers operate in our economies. It has been left to freelancers’ organizations to fund the only existing analysis. We need regular survey which ask the right kind of questions. A proper headcount would also give us more power, as it would validate the growing size of our demographic.

Power-holders need to give us a voice – a collective voice, one which speaks on behalf of all willing independent workers. This means politicians and bureaucrats need to talk to our representative bodies, and give us a seat at the table. Without a recognized discussion channel, it is hard to be taken seriously.

Treat us fairly. This last point is as much for companies as it is for politicians and bureaucracies. It’s too easy to ignore and exploit independent workers, who stand alone and powerless. Our invoices are the last to get paid. Our bargaining power in contract negotiations is poor. A set of fair standards should exist to inform companies how to treat contractors.

Freelancers rights movement is underway

Freelancers need not despair. A movement is underway. There are organizations representing freelancers in six European countries, and more emerging all the time. Some are formal associations or member-based non-profit entities, others are informal online campaigns pressuring for change. These groups get together and exchange ideas through a series of regular meetings hosted by the European Forum of Independent Professionals. It is through these meetings that the concept of an EU-wide campaign to mobilize freelancers has emerged.

This May, a new European Parliament will be elected. It is the perfect opportunity to introduce ourselves to the new and re-elected politicians. This March and April, while politicians are campaigning, Europe’s freelancers’ movement will be spreading its roots. Through an online campaign, we will inspire independent workers to join the movement by signing a manifesto which consists of five main demands: recognize freelancers; give us access; count us; give us a voice; treat us fairly.

The campaign will serve two purposes. It will gather a sizable number of signatures, displaying to politicians that we need to be taken seriously. And it will create communication channels between freelancers – mailing lists, Twitter feeds, social media pages – that can be activated at any time in the future when a pressing concern arises. If problems emerge, we’ll be ready to confront them.

You’re all individuals

In the classic Monty Python film “The Life of Brian”, the accidental messiah Brian addresses a crowd of his unexpected followers. “You’re all individuals!” he yells, and the mob repeats his statement: “Yes, we’re all individuals.” Except for one lonely voice, which retorts: “I’m not!”

Today’s independent workers are in a state of existential confusion. They are convinced they are on their own – by themselves, sometimes, as they follow a path of personal choice, and by society, which idolizes the heroic individual. Yet there is a nagging inner voice which reminds us that things could be better, more could be achieved, if we connected ourselves to others.