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How the Government Abandoned the Self-Employed

After years of allowing self-employment to replace secure and well-paid work, the government promptly abandoned the self-employed during this crisis – for the millions left behind, it's time to organise for better.

During the pandemic, self-employed people have had it bad. Millions have been failed by government support – self-employed workers have had to wait months for the government’s income protection scheme, and the newly self-employed can’t access any support at all. Many self-employed people are unable to claim sick pay. But the problems faced by the self-employed workforce span far further back than the current pandemic, and are signals of deep-seated issues in the working world at large.

It may seem a strange question to ask in the midst of an employment crisis, but it is worth considering – what should we expect from our working lives? At minimum, most of us would say something along the lines of: enough money for basic survival; protection against falling into debt when we get sick; a degree of autonomy and control in the workplace; and freedom from discrimination and harmful stress. But the working world in 2020 Britain is, for many, devoid of such assurances, with hours and intensity of work increasing; the prevalence of insecure contracts; work-related mental health problems; and discrimination.

For the self-employed, moving away from traditional work can be a chance to find work which is more accommodating, fairer, and better paid. Over the past decade, the self-employed workforce has grown to 5 million – almost 15% of the entire British workforce. More and more women are taking up this kind of work: between 1984 and 2018, female self-employment increased by nearly 150%.

The stereotype of the well-off, late-career, self-employed professional armed with choice over their working lives conceals the broader picture of the self-employed workforce. For many people, the move to self-employment has been caused by the worsening workplace conditions over the past few decades. During lockdown, lower-paid self-employed workers weren’t able to easily shift to home working, unlike higher paid freelancers in professional services like consultancy or tutoring.

And while the workplace and employer are removed under self-employment, the troubles of working life can persist. Exploitative practices in self-employment take new forms: ‘bogus self-employment’ – where unscrupulous employers get around their duties to provide basic employment rights by telling workers who legally should be classed as employees that they are self employed – abounds in the caring and cleaning sectors, which are disproportionately staffed by migrant and BAME women.

Despite the large numbers of women moving into self-employment, difficulties remain. BAME and gender pay gaps continue to endure, and by moving to self employment to solve the failure for traditional employment to accommodate caring responsibilities, the expectation that women must bear full responsibility for this is simply reaffirmed. This is a dynamic which has reared its ugly head during the pandemic: despite both male and female workers being at home during lockdown, women have continued to the majority of childcare and domestic labour, while lack of childcare played a role in the job losses of almost half of the women made redundant during the pandemic.

Inequality and harassment take new forms outside of the formal workplace too. As mentioned previously, BAME and migrant women are disproportionately represented in low paying sectors, while the sexist expectation to ‘flirt’ and seem amenable to male colleagues in the workplace can simply transition to an expectation to do so with male clients. Sexist, racist, homophobic and other prejudices don’t magically disappear when workers transition to self-employment.

When it comes to mental health, while self-employed people are able to adjust their working hours based on physical and mental health requirements, they also can face stresses at work alone, without a support network of colleagues. This can leave self-employed people with little support, and the removal of the workplace’s ‘duty of care’ means that working through the damaging impact of work upon mental health is a burden – often financial through the hefty costs of therapy – which is faced alone.

Self-employment can involve the nagging insecurity in sourcing work, the requirement to ‘butter up’ potential clients to guarantee work, and stress due to financial insecurity. Clearly, self-employment doesn’t live up to its reputation as an escape from the difficulties of the workplace. Discrimination, stress, and childcare responsibilities just take on new forms.

At the New Economics Foundation (NEF) we’ve developed an idea that would give self-employed people a hub of support: self-employment centres. Inspired by global examples of unions with a remit which expands beyond workplace issues, we propose that physical self-employment centres be created, concentrated in areas which will be the most affected by post-pandemic unemployment. This would be similar to Sure Start children’s centres, which were placed in the most disadvantaged areas to provide services to families with children under four.

Self-employment centres would be spaces on the high street which would provide a combination of benefits advice; childcare; and a well resourced co-working space. The centres could provide a space to build collective power for an otherwise isolated workforce, with access to trade union support and advice. They would be commissioned by local authorities, but run independently, so all workers could feel safe accessing them, without fear of things like the hostile environment.

These self-employment centres could revitalise our ailing high streets after the pandemic, by providing a much needed civic and communal space, as well as a way for trade unions to reach some of the most marginalised workers. 2019 was retail’s worst year ever, and 2020 is likely to be far worse. Self-employment centres can begin a move away from high streets simply as anonymous, identikit shopping zones, and towards something to support workers and communities.

The potential for mass unemployment and economic downturn after the pandemic means it’s more important than ever to rebuild the depleted power of workers to resist the driving down of conditions which could result from mass unemployment and the economic downturn. Otherwise, we risk increasing inequality further by shifting the costs of the crisis onto those who can least afford it, as we saw in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. Generating hubs of support for self-employed workers, as an isolated workforce highly vulnerable to economic shocks, could provide a crucial tool to resist this.