Will the COVID-19 pandemic fuel a freelance revolution?

Written by Roberta Hollis. Images by Harry Wright. Published by Umbrella Studios.

As the UK begins its fifth week of lockdown, many self-employed and gig-economy workers are already feeling the financial consequences.

The self-employed are amongst those who have been hit the hardest financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, with money from the Self Employment Income Support Scheme not expected to reach those in need until June at the earliest. Often facing unregulated low wages, high business expenses and unreliable payment schedules, many of the self-employed already live hand-to-mouth. For these individuals, a three-month wait for a taxable grant is simply not good enough.

Meanwhile, those expecting to receive government financial support have found themselves falling through administrative gaps. Those ineligible include people who have been self-employed for less than a year and those registered as a limited company. Unable to work for the foreseeable future and without any support from the government, a large percentage of the self-employed are facing significant financial concerns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a large number of societal issues; from a problematic and inadequate benefits system to an undervalued and underpaid essential workforce. Life as a freelancer has suddenly been exposed for what it really is. Far from the blissful, boss-free life often imagined, freelancing at its worst can be a rollercoaster of uncertainty and insecurity. In a post-COVID-19 labour market, what will life as a freelancer look like?

The Pros and Cons of Self-Employment

For many, the appeal of self-employment is the ability to choose flexible working hours, or the freedom to pick and choose what projects to work on. In exchange for being able to manage their own time and clients, the self-employed are forced to sacrifice sick pay, pension schemes, paid holiday and parental provisions. There are also added business expenses that a self-employed individual is required to meet; and running your own business can be costly. There is the cost of equipment, web-building and perhaps even premises or desk space to pay for.

“In exchange for being able to manage their own time, the self-employed are forced to sacrifice sick pay, paid holiday, pension and parental provisions.“

There have, of course, been many success stories to come out of self-employment. However, there’s still a great number of people that struggle to make ends meet. According to a 2019 study by Trades Union Congress, almost half of self-employed adults over 25 earn less than minimum wage.

Although self-employment may be a positive move for some, others are forced into freelancing as a last resort when they cannot find a full-time role.

A recent study by the International Labour Organisation states that, “while self-employment does not typically react to economic downturns, it acts as a “default” option for survival or maintaining income”.

The Self-Employment Boom

In the years following the recession of 2008/09, mass unemployment resulted in a substantial increase of workers registering as self-employed, with a 35 per cent rise in self-employment since 2008. With limited options in a poor job market, people were forced to consider alternative income options. Today, the self employed make up 15% of the UK workforce. Dr Jamie Woodcock, author of The Gig Economy, highlights that the growth in self-employment figures is linked to “the development of platform work [such as Uber and Deliveroo] disguised as self-employment”.

The rise in self-employment figures is also connected to companies hiring freelancers as an alternative to full-time employees in order to save money. Hiring freelancers means spending less on paid leave and benefits, whilst avoiding following existing employment laws and regulations. This is not to say that when a company hires a freelancer they are always looking to cut corners. The problem is not the companies that champion and support freelancers, but those who exploit workers with low-paid work and zero support benefits.

Freelance workers, such as those in the food delivery service, whose employment has continued as ‘normal’, have no choice but to continue to work; potentially risking their lives and the lives of those close to them. As self-employed contractors rather than employees though, food-delivery cyclists are not entitled to sick-pay if they are knocked off their bike at work. According to Dr Woodcock, the widespread use of such “bogus self-employment” has contributed to so many workers “having little or no support during a crisis like this”.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the most immediate change that we will see to the UK workforce is likely to be a vast number of people losing their jobs. Dr Woodcock warns that there is potential for a similar ‘growth’ in self-employment following this crisis. Those struggling to find work may resort to self-employment and companies could potentially take advantage of the cheaper labour costs. However, “it will be harder for self-employed people (whether bogus or not) to continue in this kind of relationship after bearing the costs of COVID-19”, says Dr Woodcock.

Following an almost over-night, remote-working revolution, those unable to work from home (such as wedding photographers and make-up artists) have seen their work completely dry-up. On the other hand, writers, graphic designers and those freelancers easily able to work remotely may not have been as greatly affected by the pandemic so far. However, in the COVID-19 aftermath, these workers could also see changes to their working life. The epidemic “is being used to experiment with more forms of remote supervision and surveillance”, warns Dr Woodcock. After the crisis ends “flexible work may remain, but new methods of control and supervision are much more likely to continue.” For freelancers, this may mean that juggling clients will no longer be an option and flexible hours may take a hit — if a company is able to surveil the work you are doing from home, you may suddenly be expected to work eight hours solidly for one client, rather than self managing between multiple projects.

The Freelance Revolution

In recent weeks, we’ve seen those who would typically struggle in silence speak out about the financial battles they face in self-employment. Freelancers across the country have connected through social media, united in fear and uncertainty. For many, this crisis has been a wake-up call that they are not struggling alone. Thrust into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time that the widespread problems of self-employment are thoroughly addressed. The International Labour Organisation predicts that working poverty is likely to “increase significantly” in the aftermath of the pandemic. Therefore, policy must be put into place to protect those who are most vulnerable.

The IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed) is an organisation that lobby government departments to ensure that the self-employed are represented by the government. According to IPSE, the solo self-employed contribute £305bn to the UK’s economy. Surely then, it is only fair that freelancers are guaranteed rights and support for a secure financial future. Currently, IPSE are campaigning for “a review of the tax system to clarify issues such as IR35, taking action on late payments and enabling better access to financial products like mortgages and pensions.” Amongst other policies, the organisation is also fighting for adequate paternity and maternity rights for freelancers.

As a self-employed individual, signing up to become a member of an organisation such as IPSE will provide you with the support and services to protect yourself against unexpected occurrences.

“If taking a collective approach to negotiating rights can work for those in full-time employment, why should it be any different for the self-employed?”

There are also online communities to join alongside other freelancers that will allow those in self-employment to discuss and better understand the issues they will need to navigate during this pandemic. The Coven Girl Gang is an online community of female founders and freelancers, whilst Umbrella Studios responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by setting up a Facebook freelancer community that hosts Tea With The Team, a weekly online chat for freelance professionals.

For many members of the self-employed community, this pandemic has highlighted an opportunity that they were previously unaware of — to be part of a collective. Power is stronger in numbers and, according to the Trade Union Congress, “union members get higher pay than non-members [on average]. This is because workers join together to negotiate pay and conditions.”

If taking a collective approach to negotiating rights can work for those in full-time employment, why should it be any different for the self-employed?

Continuing to speak out, openly and honestly about the hardships of freelancing is the only way to build momentum and drive change. As the COVID-19 pandemic risks a new surge of people thrust into self-employment, we must demand that laws are put in place to ensure freelancers are given the same level of protection as those in full-time employment. Let us take this opportunity to strengthen the newfound connections this pandemic has highlighted and collectively fight for change.

#FreelancersUnite

Roberta Hollis is a freelance stylist and writer. Passionate about social and ecological justice, Roberta currently works with Extinction Rebellion as their Instagram Coordinator.

Harry Wright is a Loughborough based freelance graphic designer.

Umbrella Studios is a creative agency and co-working space that champions freelance creativity in all forms.

We are a creative agency that builds unique teams for every new brief by working with a vast network of freelancers.