This short paper is based on research (Interviews and case studies) undertaken amongst freelancers from 2013-to date. It is hoped that their authentic voice and concerns will be recognised.
We have clear and sustained data indicating the growth in freelance/Independent professional working (IPros) in the last decade or so. Research published in 2013 , covering nine EU states, showed an overall increase of 45% since 2004, with some countries, such as Poland (88%); Belgium (85%), Netherlands (93%) and France (85%) showing dramatic increases, so we know freelancers have become a really important part of all European workforces. They may be important, but is anyone taking any notice of them?
We have to say that researchers, writers, policy-makers and lawyers have traditionally ignored or marginalised them. Why? Most freelancers do not want to employ others, so they are not, for politicians in that key area of ‘job creation’. And yet, as you know, they dominate critical parts of economies, especially creative and professional services areas. The other problem is that for politicians, ‘entrepreneurship’ has been the ‘hot’ policy objective, including for the EU. This is problem in that our EFIP research shows that most freelancers do not see themselves as entrepreneurs, though, as the 2013 report indicated, most said they had to ‘be entrepreneurial’.
Today, things are changing. Academics, policy makers and others are beginning see how important freelancers are. How they add agility, flexibility, skills to businesses and others and, importantly, they are developing new ways of working, new business models-this is the case even for the 20% of freelancers who are members of liberal/regulated professions. They are working collaboratively, in co-working spaces and, importantly rejecting the ‘top down’ practices of many employing organisations in Europe. Their way of working also easily chime with digitalisation and the reliance on new technology generally.
Research shows that they can operate in any skilled area. But why do they work this way. Research again shows that whether you are in New Zealand, USA, Poland or France, the motivation is pretty much the same. Freelancers want independence, choice, autonomy, flexibility and a good work-life balance. These are the drivers and most surveys report that they are achieved, and most freelancers would not go back to or become employees. More men than women are freelancers, though the gap is closing. Many older people are joining the freelance ranks, with younger people straight from education also working this way. The traditional pattern of freelance working after a period of employee status, building up contacts and then ‘going it alone’ in your late 30s is changing. Freelance working is not a default or ‘alternative’ way of working-for a growing number. Research shows that for many, it is their chosen way to work and their career.
Research also shows that freelancing can be precarious. Most of the freelancers interviewed for the 2013 report had experienced periods without work. This was hard, as they qualified for no state or other support and had to use savings, borrow money or otherwise survive. Accessing the market was also difficult for some, with work accessed simply by word of mouth, networks, referrals but little strategy in evidence. Access to professional advice, for example, accountancy, was also difficult for some and for those outside the liberal professions which, it was reported, have strong and established support structures, advice and facilities were often absent. Who will fill this gap?
Many reported problems accessing and funding training and upskilling. This is a massive issue, given that most freelance work is highly skilled, fast moving and with changing expectations from clients. Some reported isolation and we know that income has been reducing for many , perhaps especially those working for the public sector. At the same time, the constant battle with tax authorities continues or intensifies, coupled with access to social support being limited or impossible. Many report being ‘hounded’ by tax officers and treated with suspicion. Legal definitions of genuine self -employment are still matters of contention, with no clear test across Europe to differentiate the genuine self-employed from the employee. It is boring but true. Governments are, at the same time, becoming more adept at findings ways to increase the tax burden, whilst not providing more support and benefits.
Recently undertaken case studies of the work and life of freelancers is showing that, for some, the market is getting more difficult. Cross border work was ever so, but now new issues have arise. These include declining incomes and freelancers, especially in the creative industries, being required to work for free. Consultants and others are being required to undertake work on ‘let’s see how you perform’ basis, at least initially. Campaigns have taken off in the UK on this matter. And probably elsewhere.
The position appears to be that freelance working is at least ‘on the map and on political and policy agendas. This is both at EU and national level. However, there remain so many frustrations, with freelancers caught between the business agenda and the worker/labour market agendas. It seems important to clarify who we are and to deal with important questions such as if we are to be able to claim social rights, which ones? What are the priorities? We need also to think about regulation in a more positive way. There are growing concerns that de-regulation, remove all ‘red tape has gone too far .The use of digital platforms, as used by UBER and others has brought these issues into sharp focus. Some professions are now seeking stronger regulation so as to re-assure clients and the public. There needs to be mature debate about where freelancers fit in various contexts.
There is a huge amount to do.
Lets hope European Freelancers Week brings ideas forward, and more recognition and support is forthcoming.
This research aimed to find out more about feelancers (iPros) and understand the reality of their working lives, the regulatory framework they work within, and the wider context of their work. The research was carried out in two phases between June 2012 and May 2013. The first phase involved the analysis of existing data and trends across the EU with a focus on nine states 2. Phase two consisted of 87 face-to-face or telephone interviews with three groups: iPros drawn from three representative professions, leading academics, and leaders of professional bodies and trade unions, administrators and politicians familiar with the issues around freelance work.
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