The unbearable weight of uncertainty

“I know I owe you a response. It may take me to the end of the week to sort this – battling many fronts at the moment.”

This was the response I received to an email chasing up a new contract on the 23rd March – the day the UK went into lockdown.

I didn’t hear from that client again for almost a whole month.

While this type of exchange might be par for the course for your average freelancer, when the world is turning upside down it takes on a new life altogether. And in my case, this wasn’t an isolated event.

Self-employment is a double edged sword.

On the one hand it affords unmatched levels of flexibility. For much of the past two years I’ve been able to work from wherever I want and dial the work up and down as I saw fit. This enabled me to travel with my husband for his work in the early days of our marriage and spend time in some amazing parts of the world. I will be forever grateful for this experience.

On the other hand, this flexibility, and the perceived freedom that comes with it, throws up a whole ton of risk. Income is received in fits and starts. Generating work is your responsibility alone. There’s no sick pay, no holiday pay, no maternity leave. There’s no union (until recently!) if your employer treats you badly – as I found out when one client refused to pay me. And don’t even get me started on tax returns.

Being self-employed makes important things like renting or buying a home or securing a loan more difficult. The requirement to prove three years-worth of income is near impossible to satisfy, if, like me, you’ve dipped in and out of self-employment. You are generally bottom of the employed pile.

Coronavirus brought this into ever more sharp relief, exposing many of the difficulties and inequalities that the self-employed face.

The levels of uncertainty that the self-employed have had endure over the past 6 months have required almost superhuman strength.

Long before the true gravity of the situation became clear and distant reports of a potential pandemic were whispers in the media, I was working with two clients. Both had been long-term clients that I developed good relationships with. Both went silent.

In March, it was impossible to tell how long this would last. And the uncertainty weighed heavily.

Both of my clients – and most other organisations – were fighting to deal with the fall out of coronavirus on their own operations and for their own staff. The last people on their minds were the lowly consultants.

And that’s how it seems to be in most areas of life.

While employed people were swiftly offered support and relief, the self-employed were left to fight their own battle. The self-employed were only covered by the government’s income support scheme after a concerted lobbying effort by Community and other interest groups. And even then, the outcomes were a far cry from parity with employed workers.

I am one of the lucky one who can work from home, but many self-employed people have been putting themselves at risk and carrying on their work because their incomes have not been secured or payments delayed for many months.

There are 5 million self-employed people in the UK – a whopping 15% of the employed population – and this is set to grow. Over the next decade there will be more people working as self-employed than in the civil service. Yet, this substantial proportion of the workforce are expected to persist with essentially no protections.

Why is it that so many people are overlooked?

The self-employed will become an increasingly important part of the UK’s economy, and may be called upon to play a herculean role in securing the economic recovery of the country.

As we emerge from the coal face of this crisis, it’s imperative that the needs of the self-employed are adequately considered and acted upon. And there may be more of us sooner than we think. The ending of the furlough scheme may force thousands of redundancies and turn even more people to self-employment.

The question will soon turn to how we pay for all the support that has been put in place – and without a doubt self-employed people will be in the firing line. The Chancellor has already made reference to tax changes that will negatively impact the self-employed. However, he would be wise to seek to harness the dynamism of the self-employed and provide us with greater, not less, protection from the uncertainty our work bears.

Jessica is a political and international development consultant, writer and law student.

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