A job by any other name
A recent Guardian article by John Harris has attracted some comment in the freelancing world. In it Harris criticised David Cameron's emphasis on self-employment as a route to greater prosperity, both for the economy as a whole and for individual self-employed people. Harris argued that this focus on self-employment helped to pave the way for an increase in unscrupulous business practices.
While some may interpret this as an attack on self-employed people, I feel that there is an important difference between choosing to start up in business and responding to advertised “self employed business opportunities”. We must be clear about this distinction in any debate about self employment.
As a charity fundraising adviser and freelancer, I chose self-employment and I truly do work for myself, free to seek out new clients and negotiate how and when I work with them. I am in control of my schedule, my working relationships and the type of work I choose to accept. Freelancing also means that I am responsible for my own tax and national insurance, cannot rely on a regular salary and am on my own when it comes to pensions.
Unfortunately, there are some people who get all the hassle of being self-employed and none of the benefits. These are people who function as employees but who are classified as self-employed.
Harris cites some examples in his article:
“ 'We are looking for a number of door supervisors, security guards and CCTV operatives,' says one typical online job ad. 'You will be employed on a self-employed basis'. This from the suburbs of Bristol, and another trade long steeped in such sharp practice: 'Self-employed hairdressers are required for a busy, newly opened and re-vamped Beauty Salon.' "
“ 'Make £275 or more per trip as a Courier Driver, delivering same-day documents and parcels across the UK … Please note this is not a job, this is an self-employed business opportunity.' Lovely, that last turn of phrase. Where once were jobs are now "self-employment business opportunities" – though little chance, while you're speeding around the country delivering other people's parcels, of turning yourself into the next Branson, Sugar or Dyson. "
In my own life, I haven't had to do any digging to find first-hand accounts of these practices. A few months ago I attended an HMRC course for the newly self-employed and met a woman who wanted to learn how to keep her husband's accounts. It turned out that he was, like those sought in the example above, a driver delivering packages supplied to him by a courier company. He was an employee in all but name.
A local acquaintance recently started a new full-time job with supervisory responsibilities. She was excited about the opportunity, but a little unsure about one aspect of her job – she had been hired on a self-employed basis.
It is clear that, in many cases, arrangements of this type allow companies to retain as much control as ever over members of staff without the bother of employment rights and benefits. This is not the kind of self-employment that can help to kick-start economic growth, nor is it the kind of employment that ensures a fair deal for workers.
In order to expand opportunities and support for true entrepreneurship, we need to be very clear about the distinction between a self-directed body of work and boss-directed exploitation.
Sarah Spellman is a fundraising adviser and freelancer based in Birmingham. She specialises in trust and foundation fundraising, grant opportunity research and proposal writing. Her website is http://alchemygrantwriting.com/.