The fight for well-paid and good quality self-employment

COVID has revealed the lack of protection for self-employed workers. No sick pay, no holiday pay, no employer pension contributions and an income support scheme that, according to the IFS, didn’t manage to support 1.8 million self-employed people. Among those that didn’t fit the eligibility criteria for financial support were almost 70,000 new mothers, excluded because they took maternity leave in the last three years.

“I like that I’ve essentially made up a job. If you become self-employed you can just decide what you want to do” Steph Shuttleworth tells me. She runs MASH, a micro marketing agency specialising in the beer industry. It’s true. As a self-employed person, you can choose what parts of work you enjoy and craft a creative and fulfilling career. You have control over who you work with, autonomy over your working hours and often you have the flexibility to work from anywhere. Within the current zeitgeist of ‘hustle culture’, the rejection of the 9-5 and pursuit of a ‘dream job’, it’s no wonder self-employment became a desirable option.

Pre-pandemic, it was easy to assume that this new wave of self-employment meant drinking oat milk lattes in independent cafes, travelling with your Macbook and having the perfect Instagrammable lifestyle. But this rose-tinted filter distorts a reality that COVID-related job insecurity has begun to reveal.

Less support, more risk

Steph, 30, explains that “technically you have no boss, but on the flip side, you don’t receive any feedback about how you’re doing. I constantly worry that clients aren’t happy, so if anything, I’m worse than a real boss could be”.

People are self-employed in hundreds of diverse jobs, from manual labour to accounting, marketing to engineering. It’s not all artists, it’s rarely even high earners, but it is a vital sector of work that can suffer disproportionately.

When you’re self-employed, if there is no work, you won’t get paid. The difficulties faced by self-employed people have always existed, but the pandemic has revealed and exaggerated them.

In Community and Prospect trade unions’ inquiry, 46% of survey respondents said that their experience during the pandemic has made them less likely to want to be self-employed or freelance in the future.

Yet self-employment doesn’t deserve to be disregarded. Self-employed people represent a whole spectrum of diverse work, contributing £316 billion to the UK economy. In 2010, they were vital to the financial crash recovery, with “solo self-employment accounting for over a third of all employment growth since the onset of the financial crisis”. With the numbers of self-employed people now reaching under 5 million, their contribution will be vital to the economic recovery from Covid too.

The cost of freedom

Paula Mahoney, a 26-year-old data protection consultant based in Peterhead, Scotland, said one of the main benefits of being self-employed is working online when previously “a lot of companies just wouldn’t allow that”. Her partner owns a nearby woodland, so being self-employed allowed her to find fulfilling work in a remote area with slim employment opportunities. Paula’s health also benefits – she starts work later on days when she has been climbing.

But freedom comes at a cost. The 4.5 million self-employed people in the UK earn lower on average than traditional employees.

The differences in earnings can be found in the nuances of the working day, like not being paid for breaks, but also in the vulnerabilities of working alone. In Paula’s case, she uses a time tracker, which means “you’re losing a lot of money from the little things” like taking “a 5 minute break to go and get a coffee”.

Paula describes one instance of feeling exploited as a self-employed person, when she “worked nonstop” on a thesis “for two weeks straight”, sent the invoice and then “radio silence, never heard from her again”. It was “a good £500 worth of work” and she described the experience as “sickening”.

Invoices being left until the very end of the allocated 30-day period, and the anxiety of them never being paid at all, is an all too relatable feeling for self-employed people.

Impossible to take a break

Between September and November 2020, Prospect and Community trade unions surveyed 2,247 self-employed and freelance workers in an inquiry into the future of self-employment. They found that 75% of respondents did not believe self-employed and freelance workers have sufficient rights in the workplace compared to regular employees, specifically citing holiday and sick leave, pay, contracts and pensions.

Holiday is an ever-occurring topic in discussions on self-employment. “I know the theory of being self-employed is you manage those things yourself, and if you want time off you just have to plan for it, but I don’t feel like I can ever stop” explains Steph.

“I just couldn’t do it beyond saying we’re not doing any work for two weeks, so then I wouldn’t get any money”.

Because of the lack of financial support like this, Steph says she feels that exploitation in self-employment doesn’t come from clients, it comes from the government. “I feel exploited that I can’t have time off, and I can’t get sick and I can’t have a baby – not that I want to have a baby – without either going back into employment, not having money or suddenly being rich”.

Having a child is another instance where self-employed people are disadvantaged compared to their employed peers, with the hardship disproportionately affecting women. Paula is now actively looking for contracted employment because her and her partner are considering starting a family.

“We’re starting to think about having a child. You don’t have any of the kind of protection for maternity leave, your clients will all be gone when you get back. You don’t have that kind of safety net [that employees do]”

Even after returning after maternity leave, self-employed women have faced adversity. Within the Self Employment Income Support Scheme eligibility criteria, the government counted periods of maternity leave equal to other time off in, effectively counting maternity leave for self-employed women the same as a holiday.

In January 2021, charity Pregnant Then Screwed took the chancellor to high court because of this discriminatory effect on women. The charity calculated that 69,200 new mothers received a payment “well below what they should have received”, but also reinforced that the legal challenge “is about the critical importance of maternity leave and ensuring that as a society we value it”. In February 2021, the charity lost their case.

The future of self-employment

Whether it be in the lack of holiday pay, maternity support or the reliance on unstable online platforms that don’t provide protections to their workers, the inequalities in self-employment are clear.

But self-employment should not become a method of exploiting workers. Community is fighting for a world of work where self-employed workers thrive in well-paid and good quality work, and where they can continue to champion their flexibility and creativity. The future of work must create an environment where people choose to be self-employed, confident that they will be guaranteed fundamental working rights and have a safety net if they need it.

Rose is one of Community’s self-employed members and is using her voice to put the pressure on the government for better rights for the self-employed.

If you are a member of Community and need help or advice, please contact us at or on 0800 389 6332.

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