Freelancing in France

A survey by Hopwork and Ouishare sheds light on France’s rising class of empowered freelancers

So close to the presidential election, the future of work is on every candidate’s lips. In particular the subject of freelance work is one that stirs controversies and passionate debates in France. In a country where unemployment exceeds 10% of the active population, a majority of “insiders” protected by rigid work contracts see all the “outsiders” as a potential threat that ought to be eliminated. They aim to erect more barriers to stop alternative work models from developing.

Freelancers are perceived either as the poor helpless victims of evil American digital platforms, or as feckless millennials unable to hold a “real” job. Salaried work is so overwhelmingly dominant—salaried workers still represent 90% of the population—that many still find it a bit hard to imagine freelancing can be a choice made knowingly and freely by actual professionals.

Yet France is changing fast. A recent McKinsey survey suggests as many as 13 million French people are to some extent involved with independent work, either because they have a part-time gig on a digital platform, or because they rent their apartment on Airbnb, or because they sell their services full-time to companies. French people have embraced the digital transition more fully perhaps than other Europeans. French workers are hungry for more autonomy, flexibility and purpose and passionately adopting new work models.

A whole new class of young (and not so young) freelancers is rising and transforming work and organisations in an unprecedented way. Hopwork, France’s #1 freelancers platform, together with Ouishare, a think tank and group of freelancers dedicated to promoting a more “collaborative society”, have just released a survey pertaining to France’s new freelancers.

The survey reveals these workers have embraced freelancing as a lifestyle and are on average much happier than they were as employees with 9-to-5 work schedules. It also reveals they are at odds with the world that surrounds them and are struggling to impose a more positive professional image.

Hopwork aims to empower freelancers rather than commoditise them

American platforms are very successful in France. In fact, Uber and the like face an opposition that is all the stronger as they are increasingly popular. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be seen as such a threat. These platforms are also (rightfully) criticised for having a deflationary effect on workers’ revenues: a lot of the tasks that can be performed on those platforms will be performed at an exceedingly low price. Thus they make low-qualified (and often more qualified) workers into a commodity.

Uber protest in France

The workers-as-a-commodity model is facing many limits: customers have to cope with low-quality service and sometimes no-shows while workers are barely able to make ends meet—in particular in Paris where real-estate is as expensive as it’s ever been—and won’t commit to any long-term relationship with the platform. When it comes to high-level tasks such as developing a website or graphic design, companies find it hard to have access to reliable high-quality freelancers and will sometimes prefer the “safe” option of going with an agency instead…

However a few local actors have managed to make their mark in that context by going upstream and focusing on the workers instead. If other platforms find it hard to offer high-quality reliable on-demand services because work is commoditised, then surely focusing on the workers is a good bet. Because there are two sides (supply and demand) to the model, the strategy makes perfect economic sense. That’s precisely the idea behind Hopwork’s model, which presents itself as a “human-centered vs task-oriented platform”:

“Would you find it logical to “order” a Java developer as you order a cab ? Being driven from point A to point B is an “easy” task, which may even be automated soon. When you look for a java developer, you look for a “creative class” worker with skills, experience, and social abilities to work with you or your team. What you look for is a human, after all. That’s why Hopwork is based on a community of freelancers, each one with a profile, aptitudes and a personality (…). That’s how you get the best freelancers.”

Freelancers are a fast-growing group in France

In spite of the friction and the large opposition to on-demand work models, freelancing is a fast-rising phenomenon in France. Because work contracts are among the most rigid in Europe, employers are reluctant to hire new employees and prefer the flexibility of on-demand services. And even when they do want to hire, they find it increasingly hard to find candidates willing to be recruited for 9-to-5 jobs: when it comes to hiring certain technical profiles (IT programmers), looking for freelancers is sometimes their only option.

Highly-qualified workers have embraced the gig economy with all the more enthusiasm as they find their prospects in “regular” companies too limited. A higher number of the so-called “intellectuals” are happy to escape the “prison” of salaried work. Take programmers. They’re in such high demand that they welcome the opportunity to become independent and get paid more. For those who work fast, it’s easier to combine multiple jobs, and leave the jobs that are less exciting. For HR people, it means they will have to learn to appeal to the best freelance talent: offer them flexibility and exciting projects.

How many young workers view “regular” 9-to-5 jobs…

The Hopwork — Ouishare study defines “freelancers” (the word is not used the same way as it is in English) as “highly skilled self-employed individuals who work for themselves but do not employ others, to provide services to companies”. They range from copywriters and graphic designers to IT specialists and consultants. They represent a growing segment of professional work. Their growth has been spectacular in France: today they represent roughly 830,000 workers in France, up 11.5% each year, and 9 million workers in the European Union. They are by far the fastest growing group in France’s ailing labour market.

The trend did not start with internet platforms, of course. Outsourcing has been a long-term trend in French corporations for a good twenty years. But it has accelerated significantly over the past 4 or 5 years. What is new is that the rise of freelancers is changing work conditions for everyone else. For example, remote work is becoming increasing popular and used by corporations as a recruiting argument. What is new is that more freelancers want to let everyone know it is a lifestyle.

Freelancing as a lifestyle

The survey released last week by Hopwork and Ouishare gives more fodder to the freelancing-as-a-lifestyle movement. Out of 38,000 freelancers who use the platform on a regular basis, over 1,000 Hopwork freelancers participated in the survey. It turns out 90% of them chose independent work over an employee contract, which comes as quite a surprise in a country that still values salaried work so highly.

88% of the survey respondents said they chose independent work for the freedom that comes with it, 44% wanted to test entrepreneurship, and 31% were looking to increase their revenues. 75% said they were proud of what they did and felt their work was fulfilling. The figures are a lot higher than they are for the general working population.

At the “Freelance Fair” in Paris in March 2017…

Among the advantages of freelancing that respondents put forward, 52% mention they are happy they can organise their work schedule freely, 47% like the idea of choosing their clients and their projects, and 46% are glad they can choose where to work. In all cases flexibility and freedom are put forward as significant advantages.

For sure, the apocalyptic vision of an impoverished class of workers forced into freelancing and exploited by a greedy bunch of evil corporations is quite far from the reality as it is lived by the workers. Some are indeed forced into freelancing for lack of opportunities but they often embrace freelancing as a way to escape unemployment. A vast majority of them insist they did choose freedom and autonomy over security. And a vast majority claim they would not want to go back to salaried work.

There’s a discrepancy between their excellent self image and the way they believe the outside world sees them…

But freelancers do need some more recognition

The survey reveals French freelancers feel largely ignored by the rest of the world: their self-image may be excellent (see above), but 97% of the respondents wish politicians heeded their needs a bit more, and 88% complain their family and friends worry about them. In other words there is a large discrepancy between how they view themselves and how the world sees them.

Indeed France’s social protection institutions have not evolved to accommodate the new categories of workers. They were designed for the salaried workers of the post-war boom years. Also, some new risks make things more complicated for freelance workers. Housing is now their number one ‘risk’. Rent guarantees and access to loans are de facto inaccessible to today’s independent workers, unless they have material assets. Banks will not lend money to unconventional workers, however rich they actually may be. Landlords will not rent their property to people with irregular revenues.

In Paris housing is increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible…

So new insurance products or social institutions are needed to cover those risks for the growing freelancing workforce. A whole range of services still need to be developed and distributed to make the lives of freelancers easier. Forming movements and communities are the best way to let the world know freelancers are now a force to be reckoned with.

France doesn’t yet have a Freelancers Union but the country is ripe for some kind of organised force and lobbying power, so freelancers can make sure they are paid well and can get access to housing as well. So let’s organise!

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