There have been encouraging signs this month that the government appears to have finally woken up to the insidious trend towards ‘false self-employment’ among the UK workforce and might actually be about to do something about it!
According to Jane Ellison, financial secretary to the Treasury, the government is now “committed to taking strong action where companies, to reduce their costs, force their staff down routes which deny them the employment rights and benefits they are entitled to. Individuals cannot be opted out of rights and protections simply by … calling them ‘self-employed’.”
A new specialist unit at HM Revenue and Customs is to be set up to investigate companies using large numbers of self-employed or agency staff to shirk traditional employer responsibilities, such as providing the minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady welcomed the news, saying: “This investigation should be a warning shot to bad employers. Those who force staff into bogus self-employment must be held accountable.”
The truth about self-employment
Self-employment has rocketed in recent years. Acording to TUC analysis, it accounted for 44% of the net rise in employment between 2010 and 2014. The vast majority of self-employed people in 2016 are not well-paid consultants with no one to answer to but themselves and their bank accounts. On the contrary, today’s ranks of the self-employed are far more likely to be taxi drivers, construction workers, couriers or struggling actors who can’t find the payroll jobs they want. Average earnings from self-employment in autumn 2014 were £207 a week – less than half that of employees.
Is the tide turning?
The announcement comes as several disputes between employers and workers over low pay and poor conditions in the most casualised sectors of the UK economy are coming to a head. Workers, unions and campaigners are challenging new models of employment, and the stakes are high.
Uber: A tribunal case brought by a group of ‘self-employed’ drivers for the online taxi-hiring company Uber, found against the company. The verdict in the GMB union backed case will have far-reaching implications for the future of so-called ‘on-demand’ labour.
Sports Direct: Last month, union campaigning won a promise from Sports Direct to put its shop workers onto contracts with guaranteed hours and accept an independent investigation into warehouse working conditions.
Deliveroo: Protesting couriers have been resisting unfavourable changes to their pay terms.
Are you self-employed?
Many unions are specially set up to help freelance workers. If you're in a profession dominated by self-employment, there may be a union that caters specifically to what you need. That could be as an actor or stage manager getting help from the Equity union to negotiate with your employer for better pay and conditions for you and your colleagues. Or a photo-journalist seeking to get a media outlet to respect the copyright on your work with help from the NUJ.
To find details of unions operating in your sector, use workSMART’s Union Finder.