On Thursday, the clocks struck time on this year’s annual self-assessment tax deadline with millions rushing to meet the midnight countdown and file taxes owed as self-employed ‘sole traders’ or partners in the previous tax year. With a £100 fine hanging over the heads of anyone who doesn’t submit to HMRC in time, it’s a topic which annually captures the full media attention backed up the government’s own awareness campaign, this year fronted by a chastising duck. But don’t let the media pull the feathers over your eyes – this deadline is the least of a freelancer’s worries. The real issue isn’t when or how a freelancer files their tax return, it’s whether they’ll be able to file one at all.
When it comes to being self-employed the biggest fear doesn’t come from a one-off, annual deadline, but faces freelancers every single day. And it’s not a question of what goes out of their bank account but rather what doesn’t go in. The real fear for freelancers is from fighting to support themselves in a climate where people expect them to work for free, with companies and individuals taking, not taxing, their work and skills. This immense pressure is bearing down on the two million freelancers – and that’s not even including the numbers classed as ‘self-employed’ – up and down the UK 365 days a year, yet we consistently duck away from calling out this foul and immoral behaviour.
The price tag we need to start seeing hanging in the air over the heads of the self-employed isn’t a £100 fine from the government but the £5,400 freelancers lose on average each year from ‘free work’, regardless of deadline: paltry in comparison. ‘Free work’ is unremunerated work with skills and services demanded in return for ‘exposure’, including interns forced to work for ‘experience’, and it’s a culture we bafflingly just don’t question and have allowed to wreak economic havoc at an individual and national level. The stories we need to be flagging up aren’t amusing tales of late tax return excuses but the appalling cases of businesses trying to justify why they won’t pay for something which they directly, financially benefit from. And free work isn’t the only mass problem facing the self-employed as even if payment is agreed that doesn’t mean they’ll see it, freelancers spending 20 days of every year chasing invoices that haven’t been paid. There’s no deadline currently governing that.
Talk to any freelancer and they’ll have their own free work horror story to tell. Mine was spending the last £300 of my savings on a lawyer to try and recover £11,000 in unpaid invoices, which didn’t work. I realised that not only could I not afford to live with this culture in place but neither could our economy: it’s estimated the freelancer community contributes £125 billion to the UK economy every year but we’re responsible in keeping this figure much, much lower than it should be. In these difficult economic and political times not taking action has stopped being an option.
My experiences as a freelancer, and sharing them with others, led me to set up Freelancer Club, to push for the cultural and structural change so desperately needed. We run the #NoFreeWork campaign which coordinates and pushes for change on a case-by-case basis as well as at governmental level. #NoFreeWork is calling on companies to sign up to a code of conduct to visibly pledge never to ask for free work again and abide by invoice paying times, as it’s employers who hold the balance of power in a system set up against freelancers. And we’re also pushing for policy reform to grant the freelance community crucial protection – the ‘Freelance Isn’t Free Act’ in New York City, campaigned for by the Freelancers Union, shows what we’re asking for can and has been done.
As we wait for the news stories to come out telling us how many missed filing their tax return this year, let’s make a late new year’s resolution for 2019. This year we can make deadline day mean something else - the day we called time on free work.