Working Together, But Not With Anybody

This year’s theme of European Freelancers Week is Working Together in the New Economy. It is a crucial topic, as freelancers have always been pushed to compete rather than cooperate. However, a new generation of freelancers is shifting to cooperative practices rather than purely competitive ones, making cooperation the basis of their business model. But how about those who advocate on behalf of freelancers? On this issue, very conflicting voices raise as there is no agreement on the definition of what the category “freelancer” should encompass across Europe.

Firstly, there has been a socio-economic evolution of these types of workers. Many trends (ITC development, lower cost of production tools, management strategies, higher education of average population, outsourcing, political incentives to become self-employed, etc) have pointed to the growth of freelancing beyond traditional sectors (often linked to liberal professions, such as architects, lawyers, etc). Freelancers today are active in a wide range of economic sectors and experience diverse working conditions.

Secondly, many think freelancers are necessarily entrepreneurs who embrace risk-taking. However, many freelancers, especially in the knowledge economy, simply want to make a living from their know-how, which doesn’t necessarily mean they want to or can take economic risks. These are often workers who are actually economically more vulnerable and need to access social protection.

In addition, the term “freelancer” covers a very heterogeneous category of workers closely linked to the concept of “autonomy”. This concept can be measured and considered in many ways; it can relate to the capacity of negotiating income for work rendered, to the freedom in the execution of work (not being controlled), to the self-organization of work (full coordination), to the choice of worktime or workplace, to the fact of having many clients (less dependency), as well as to owning one’s own working tools. The more someone aggregates these variables, the more s/he is an autonomous worker in line with the freelance status.

Last but not least, often there may be a confusion between freelancing and self-employment. Strictly speaking, self-employment is a legal status while freelancing is not necessarily[1]. The later refers rather broadly to a way of working and living, and covers situations that go beyond self-employment, such as people who are directly employed in a company for short assignments, those who regularly move from a company to another, to autonomous workers who chose to work under a salaried status in cooperatives or umbrella companies.

When SMart speaks of freelancers, it considers those who find their own work opportunities, who usually have a main occupation or set of skills (intellectual or manual), sometimes develop related skills around their main know-how and have different providers of work.

Therefore, the “freelancer” category is difficult to grasp statistically and politically, but is fundamental to address the fragmentation of the labour market, and degrade of working and living conditions compared to the past generations. As a result, when it comes to advocating for freelancers, contradictory voices emerge. While some stress the need for no rules, others claim more protection to workers. There is so much need for improving the visibility of freelancers that any event or movement that provides it is a good opportunity to raise awareness. As a result, organizations and movements are creating a constituency with no clear aim. So it is time to understand “who claims what from which standpoint and why”. For instance, within those who claim more protection for freelancers and social reforms, we should beware of their motives. Indeed many agree on the need to reform the social protection models, especially for freelancers. But some organizations only claim that to release themselves form the cost of such social protections.

SMart, clearly stands for more protection for freelancers. It even gives it in practice by providing both the most protective legal status to freelancers (that of salaried worker) and solidarity through mutualization of means. SMart has always clearly advocated for an economy and social institutions that allow bridging autonomy and solidarity, at its cooperative image stands[2]. Active in 9 countries, it participates in building a Europe wide voice for freelancers, and aims at working with other organizations that not only advocate for more social protection but also do it in practice. That’s why in France for instance we are member of Bigre! which is an association of cooperatives, most of which are Activity and Employment Coops (CAE)[3].

Such a value-driven network for freelancers (and supporting organizations) that strives for solidarity and autonomy should be Europe-wide, and could be larger than the cooperative movement itself. Those who share these values and goals, and whose activities and business models are in line with what they claim, are most welcome to build this network. May those who walk the talk join us to strive for autonomy in solidarity.

Sarah de Heusch
Project officer for the Development and Strategy Unit
SMart
ris@smart.coop
www.smartbe.be

 

[1] With some rare exceptions as in Germany for instance.

[2] Our members are all: co-owners of the cooperative (with voting rights and eligible to the board), economic drivers as they are responsible for finding their own clients, salaried workers as the cooperative becomes their employer in order to allow them to access the most protective working status available (that of employee).

[3] In this association, all member organizations provide their freelancers with means to work autonomously, in solidarity through both the social status of employee and the promotion of collaboration amongst workers.

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