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John Park – A trade union response to self-employment

22nd February 2017

The Social Market Foundation has published their ‘Working it out: responses and recommendations to the rise in self-employment’ pamphlet, edited by Rachel Reeves MP, looking at the rise in self-employed work over the last 10 years from various perspectives. Read a chapter from the pamphlet by Community’s Assistant General Secretary, John Park:


The scale of the challenge

Trade union representation of self employed and freelance workers is not a new concept. In many sectors such as construction, broadcasting and journalism, self-employed trade union members have been at the centre of union activity and have shaped their respective industries for decades.

The success of unions being able to recruit and organise self-employed workers in these sectors is largely because of the collective bargaining arrangements and wider sectorial agreements that exist. This has enabled unions to not only represent workers directly – both individually and collectively – but also speak with authority to decision makers on the plethora of issues that interest their members working in these sectors.

In a perfect world, and with all stats pointing towards an explosion in self-employed and freelance working, it would be good for workers and the economy if similar trade union structures were to be established in this emerging area of new opportunity.

However, we do not live in a perfect world. Self-employment isn’t just growing; it is evolving at an uncontrollable pace. We now find ourselves in a situation where the majority of self-employed and freelance workers have no awareness of trade unions and have very little engagement with people with similar working arrangements, concerns or aspirations.

The precarious nature of this type of work tells us that these workers need a voice – not just at workplace level – but also on issues that impact of their lives and those of their families beyond work. There is clearly a role for trade unions to support and empower these workers to organise. However, just pointing out the problems and concerns around working independently isn’t enough. Trade unions need to recognise that working this way – whilst always not a choice – cannot simply be solved by saying everyone needs to be directly employed or engaged in a rigid employment relationship with an employer.

Of course many of these workers want and need better conditions and more rights at work, but many also want flexibility and a say on what that flexibility looks like. That is a challenge for the trade union movement but one we must meet if we are to be relevant to self-employed and freelance workers.

The importance of our message and tone

So what can we do? Firstly our language needs to be more relevant and engaging. I am sure that most self-employed and freelance workers want a voice at work but I suspect the majority don’t want to be part of some self-styled workers revolution to access that voice. We need to recognise that many of these workers are younger and probably are only aware of what trade unions do through the prism of the media – which tends not to be positive.

Of course there are other channels and ways to deliver a message but we need to understand what the audience wants to hear. So if we think the best approach is to circumvent the mainstream media our message has to be different – right now the same language, same message and same tone will not work and frankly will probably scare more workers away rather than attract them to trade unions.


Building a working community

Trade unions need to physically go to where people are working and help establish working communities that foster new relationships that go beyond work. There must be greater appreciation of the other things that work provides beyond employment – such as friendship, support and a sense of community.

It can be a lonely experience working on your own at home or in a coffee shop. Many shared office businesses have recognised the business opportunity and have given their traditional office space the ‘shabby-chic makeover’ for solo workers. This is all well and good but it is doubtful facilities of this nature generate a genuine workplace community.

Community is currently working with a Welsh based cooperative called IndyCube who have established over 30 ‘co-working’ spaces in Wales over the last 6 years. IndyCube brings empty office and retail spaces to life by providing a positive working environment. Desks, refreshments and meeting spaces are all organised through their online payment platform where users can book desk-space as required – a day, a week, a month and longer.

This approach brings benefits to all involved. As a cooperative, members have a say and any surplus goes back into proving a better service for users. The users not only collaborate in a business they are also in a real, live working environment. Property owners receive an income and are of course happy to see once empty offices and other spaces now buzzing with work.

The next stage – for both IndyCube and Community is to develop a trade union and cooperative partnership which will bring both space and trade union membership to the users. This partnership is aiming to increase the number of spaces available to users across the UK. Together, we are seeking to expand this network of self-employed and freelance workers while organising them into collective group with a voice on the issues that matter to them.

Government and local authorities can do more to support innovation like this. They should be incentivising the use of redundant space by expanding business rates relief to encourage co-working. It is in the interest of the whole community to move people from their bedrooms and kitchen tables into disused shops and offices.

Of course, it is not just the office environment that could benefit from this type of approach – co-making facilities with shared manufacturing equipment are also in demand and encouraging workers to move from their garages into shared factory space. This brings all the same benefits as shared office space does and injects life into redundant space across the UK.

A Ghent system to support the self-employed?

The lack of social protection for self-employed workers provides a significant campaigning opportunity for trade unions to recruit, organise and run campaigns to ensure self-employed and freelance workers have the same level of protection as those in traditional employment.

Employment rights are more defined for those in mainstream employment and these rights are often the minimum standards – with decent employers going beyond the statutory minimum in areas such as maternity pay, paternity leave, adoption leave and holidays.

Given the expected rise in self-employment, it is clear that the minimum level of social protection is not sufficient for either the individuals or the wider economy – particularly for those with insecure working arrangements in the gig economy.

In the USA, the Freelancers Union has established itself by providing a range of work-related packages which support self-employed workers both in and out of work such as health, disability and life insurance.

Closer to home, Scandinavian countries – as part of their social contract – utilise the Ghent system. This model – named the city where it was first implemented – is an arrangement whereby the main responsibility for welfare payments, especially unemployment benefits, is held by trade unions, rather than a government agency.

It is the predominant form of unemployment benefit in Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Belgium has a hybrid system, in which the government also plays a significant role in distributing benefits. In all of the above countries, unemployment funds held by unions or federations are regulated and partly subsidised by the respective national government.

This approach has led to high levels of trade union membership, and by all international standards the Scandinavian economies that perform well are more equal and provide a better quality of life for their inhabitants.

A similar approach in the UK – a powerful combination of government support supplemented with benefits administered by trade unions – would be a significant step towards supporting self-employed workers

The original Ghent system focuses on out of work support, but a reinvigorated system here in the UK could go much further – providing increased support in areas such as maternity leave, sick pay and paid time off for training.

This approach would also reinvigorate the trade union movement’s role as a social partner. Alongside the important role we would play in supporting self-employed workers, our new status would enable trade unions to constructively inform and help shape workplace policy at a strategic level.

There can be no argument that this period of reorganisation around work is surely one of the most challenging that trade unions have faced in our long and proud history.

It is compounded by a sustained decline in trade union density – particularly in the private sector – since the early 1980s and our inability to break into new areas of the economy in a meaningful way.

Yet, with a radical approach and a recognition that outdated practices will not suffice, there could be a real opportunity for trade unions to not just effectively represent this new generation of self-employed and freelance workers but also breathe life into the wider trade union movement. We should be proud of the significant gains we have achieved on behalf of working people. There is clear and indisputable evidence that trade unions have and continue to make workplaces safer, smarter, greener and more prosperous – benefiting not just our members but every section of British society.

That legacy is under threat. If we fail to step up to the challenges of the 21st century then the impact of that failure will be felt way beyond the UK workplace. If we do, then a new generation will have a voice, the chance to shape the world of work and help ensure we genuinely have an economy that works for everyone.

This submission is part of ‘Working it out: responses and recommendations to the rise in self-employed’. If you would like to read the whole pamphlet, please click here