Last Friday’s sweeping economic update from the chancellor failed to account for the five million self-employed and freelance workers across the UK. It was a devastating blow for the many people who are praying for a lifeline during the virus worth more than £94 a week. But after a weekend of intense lobbying from our incredible unions and creative federations, the Treasury was making all the right noises. Hopes were raised, fears tentatively assuaged. But the debate in the Commons on Tuesday was a slap in the face.
Watching the chancellor stand up in parliament and express concerns about freelancers earning ‘too much’ during this crisis left me speechless. He warned that designing provisions to support this community would be ‘incredibly complicated’ and therefore would take time.
In a crisis of this magnitude, we cannot afford to quibble over details. With every 24 hours that passes without support, lives are at risk. Freelancers who have seen income dry up overnight will not be able to pay their rents, their bills or buy essential supplies. Bankruptcy awaits many. For others, the pressure this is putting on their mental health might lead to outcomes too dreadful to contemplate. The time to act may have already passed for some.
According to the ONS, average income for the self-employed is centered around £240 a week. This is much lower than for employees, at £400 a week. The vast majority are not high earners. Nor do they quality for sick pay, holiday pay or maternity packages. And whilst the rest of the country is, quite rightly, being thrown a life raft, the freelancers and self-employed have been thrown under the bus.
In my 12 years representing the freelance community, I have never seen morale so low. I’ve received desperate calls from those whose entire income base has dropped away. Contracts have been cut short and projects cancelled across the board. The economic drawbridge has been drawn up and future work, alongside myriad unpaid invoices, are disappearing along with it.
Watching the chancellor stand up in parliament and express concerns about freelancers earning ‘too much’ during this crisis left me speechless.
Not only is the government’s attitude towards the millions of freelancers and their families deeply disturbing, but it also smacks of hypocrisy.
The last 10 years have seen the government throw their weight behind building an economy where the number of freelance or gig economy jobs has proliferated. Policymakers have proactively driven up the numbers of those classed as self-employed. In a concerted effort to drive down unemployment metrics, hoards of individuals were recategorised. A total of 181,000 16 to 24-year-olds were self-employed as of 2016 — a 74% increase compared to 2001. Those who made the numbers add up before are being left off the balance sheet now.
Additionally, thanks to the policies of this government, companies like Uber and Deliveroo have been given carte blanche to scale their empires off the backs of gig workers and deny those workers basic labour rights. Tech companies have grown and landed lucrative venture capital cheques thanks to the efforts of freelance developers, graphic designers, coders, writers and marketers who were picked up and put down at a moment’s notice. As our attention spans got shorter and our on-demand desires grew bigger, our regard for employment rights and responsibilities diminished. The world of work — powered by this invisible army of labour — became increasingly dehumanised. Yet all of a sudden everything is viscerally, horribly human again: sectors, livelihoods and even lives are at stake.
The decision-makers in Downing Street have already offered a £10k no-questions-asked-grant for small businesses with premises. That’s pretty much any company that rents an office and qualifies for small business rates relief. For the staff on payroll, 80% of their salaries will be taken on if and when needed. As buffers to help businesses and employees weather the storm were announced, no concerns were raised about too much going to those who might not need it. So where are the grants for the self-employed? Where is the short-term relief to ensure people can stay in their homes, stay fed and warm and stave off imminent threats to their mental health and wellbeing?
For five million people and their families, the last few days have provided nothing but dashed hopes and mounting anxiety. The esteem in which our freelance community is held by the government has been shown for what it truly is. The authorities cannot afford to waste a single day more. Action must be taken not tomorrow or later this week, but right now.
Our freelancers are our writers, artists, academics, developers, directors, poets. They are single parents, disabled people, the young, the old. And they deserve so much better than this.
Matt Dowling is the founder and CEO of Freelancer Club, an organisation supporting and connecting 40,000 creative freelancers across the UK.