Freelance Work Has Always Been Precarious, Not Aspirational. Coronavirus Has Made That Clear
by Sophie McKay
7 April 2020
Louise Dean has never worked on a farm before. A trained hairdresser, she’s more used to foils and fringes than planting or picking vegetables.
But since February her income has dried up entirely, as first people became frightened of unnecessary social contact, and then lockdown prohibited it altogether.
As she’s been cutting hair on a self-employed basis, Dean’s income will not be paid by the government until June at the earliest. Dean is better off than some – she probably will be able to access the new benefit, despite the hoops she’ll have to jump through to get it – but she doesn’t think she can stay afloat until the summer.
“I’ve been looking into doing farm work, but it’s hard to make that decision,” she explains, adding that the uncertainty of the situation is compounding the problem. “If I was to go looking for employment elsewhere, how long would I say that I’m available for? It’s confusing and unsettling.”
The government succumbed to enormous pressure to say it would support freelancers from June, after initially only offering to cover 80% of the salaries of employed workers.
The new benefit will entitle self-employed people with incomes of less than £50,000 to financial help based on a mean average of the profits recorded on their last three tax returns.
This measure will no doubt offer a lifeline to eligible freelancers. However, it is riddled with problems.
The way the benefit is designed and allocated will leave many workers ill-supported or totally ineligible for any financial assistance. And, in addition to it being announced several days after benefits were agreed for employees, there is now going to be a huge delay in the payment being rolled out.
The freelance dream.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the romantic notion of the Macbook-toting, brunch-going freelancer for the lie that it is. Freelance work is increasingly characterised by uncertainty, insecurity and exploitation. This is reflected in the government’s starkly different treatment of freelancers and employees, which highlights the fact that freelancers are part of a new precariat, which has grown exponentially since the last economic crisis.
Back in 2008, there were only 1.4m freelancers in the UK. Now there are 5.03m. Meanwhile, the gig economy has doubled in size in the last three years, creating a particularly vulnerable and poorly paid freelance workforce – companies like Uber and Deliveroo are notorious for their exploitative labour practices.
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Such a dramatic increase, can, in part, be attributed to the long-term effects of the global financial crash – and subsequent recession – which radically changed the economy, dismantling the idea of the conventional nine-to-five (only 6% of people in the UK now work a 9-5) and the notion of a job for life.
Over the last decade, freelancing has become increasingly popular, with millions of people now juggling numerous jobs and professions in order to make ends meet.
London in particular has become a hub of self-employment, with the number of freelancers in the city having increased by 84% since 2008.
Despite the instability that comes with freelancing, this kind of work has become increasingly fetishised. The gig economy’s insatiable slogan of “work whenever you want!” has been pushed hard by brands like Fiverr and Lyft, which peddle the idea of increased freedom while actually expecting workers to be constantly on call. As a result, the idea of being busy and overworked has gained a certain glamour and cache.
Working multiple jobs, or having ‘side hustles’, has become increasingly normalised. It’s estimated that one in four people in the UK has a ‘side hustle’. Millennials are particularly likely to have one and indeed one in five millennials works two or more jobs. Over half a million people in the UK are estimated to suffer from work related stress and burnout and last year the World Health Organisation officially recognised it as a health problem.
The last few weeks have shown just how precarious this type of work really is, with freelancers across many industries and professions losing significant or all of their work.
In addition to having their incomes dry up, freelancers have been shown just how little the government cares about them, with the needs of employees and small businesses taking priority.
One glaring issue with the benefit offered to freelancers is that the payment will not come in until June, this means some people will have waited nearly three months from having an ordinary income to receiving the payment. It’s also unclear if the payment will be given out to everybody simultaneously, or if the government will manage to roll it out on time. As a result, many people will be forced to apply for Universal Credit, but how long that process will take is anyone’s guess.
With reports of hours-long digital queues and phone calls reaching into the hundreds, the system is already massively overstretched thanks to an influx of applicants due to coronavirus-related lay-offs.
There are also significant restrictions around who qualifies for the benefit and who doesn’t. The system fails to take into account anyone who has become freelance– or for whom freelance work has only become the majority of their income – in the last year. These people will not be eligible for anything.
Steven Laverty, an actor, who also relies on work as a host and social media freelancer to support himself, will be ineligible for the benefit.
“It’s only been since last summer that my self-employed work has been the majority of my income,” says Laverty, “I’ve been self-employed for years, but it was always minimal. Because of that, I don’t qualify.”
As a result, Laverty will be forced to continue looking for work in an increasingly uncertain time: “Some of the social media stuff I do, a lot of it is for events companies,” he explains, “so with less events there’ll be less to promote and less work. It’s hard to know what will happen.”
People who work for multiple companies but are PAYE at one or more are also at risk of being exempt from the benefit. In order to receive compensation they will need to be furloughed by all of their clients, along with having been on the payroll from the 28 February (meaning contracts that had just finished or were about to start will not count).
Those who rely on freelance work as one strand of their income, but not the majority, will also not be entitled to the benefit.
“There’s a third party of people who combine PAYE and self-employed incomes because they have to, and I think that’s not really been taken into account,” says Jackie Fisher, who combines freelance teaching and directing work with a customer service job, “I need both streams to get by,”
Laverty, who also mixes PAYE and self-employed work, echoes Fisher’s concerns: “So far, everything has been rolled out very slowly,” he says, “I appreciate that not everyone can be catered for from day one, but I feel that a lot of people I know weren’t catered for at all.”
The crisis has exposed all of the fault lines in the existing political system. Over the course of a decade, we have seen the very notion of work radically altered. The ascent of the gig economy has created a sprawling, fragmented and ever-growing underclass of insecure and exploited freelance workers – exploitation which the Conservative government has been content to let flourish.
But at the same time, the pandemic has also demonstrated just how quickly that system can be changed, with the government underwriting huge swathes of businesses and individuals. In doing this they have exposed the lie of neoliberalism; it is not the only way.
Precarious work shouldn’t exist; no-one should be on an insecure contract – and the government has shown they don’t have to be. It is not a question of possibility but of political will.
Sophie McKay is a London based journalist and playwright. She focuses on social issues and technology.