Self-employment isn’t necessarily a choice

"We need to make sure that our unions are able to defend our rights in all working spheres, and that we have policy in place that eliminates the risk of bosses eroding those hard fought-for rights."

I’m a Speech & Language Therapist who is, for all intents and purposes, self-employed. But I’m not the type of self-employed that often springs to mind when we talk about working for one’s self. Nor the type of self-employed that I think Hammond was trying to target.  I, like hundreds of others, am a product of the increased privatisation of public services that are subjected to substantial funding cuts and frozen positions. 

Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that 15.1% of people in work are self-employed, which the TUC estimates to be 1 in 6 workers. In fact, it is estimated that of 118,000 new full-time jobs, 88% are self-employed (TUC). This poses several questions: firstly the fact that while the Government claims that we have the highest employment rate in decades, in fact that employment rate is made up of many people who are not necessarily in full-time employment with workers’ rights and job security. The second issue it raises is the change in working practices and how we’re going to respond to them as a centre left think tank and as a Labour Party. 

The trade unions, as a core part of the Labour movement, will be instrumental in adapting to the change in working practices; so that people who are pushed into self-employment receive the same working rights as company employees. Those employment rights that Trade Unionists and Labour Party activists fought tirelessly for, which many take for granted, are precisely the rights that thousands are now learning not to expect. Sick pay, holiday pay, maternity and paternity leave are all rights that are often not available to the self-employed, not to mention a lack of job security and limited, if any, access to redundancy pay. 

The increasing privatisation of public services has been a key factor in the rise in self-employment amongst my colleagues in allied health professions – professions allied to medicine including physios, occupational therapists, speech & language therapists, paramedics, to name but a few. Despite funding many allied health professionals through their training, the NHS is increasingly unable to provide jobs at the end of it – a fact that has detrimental consequences for both the organisation, graduates and of course the wider economy. Therefore, many who trained and could not find a position within the NHS, had few options but to turn to independent organisations or self-employment. I should know, I was one of them. 

Policy changes that aim to equalise the contributions from across the workforce could in fact have detrimental consequences for individuals like me. Although the Chancellor has done a U-turn on his National Insurance hike for the self-employed, the concern is that this Government and many across the political spectrum are failing to recognise the disparity within the self-employment sector.

While I agree that it is important that those within the higher income bracket of self-employment should pay their share, it should also be recognised that many of the self-employed experience low wages, lack of job security and no employment rights. The concept of self-employment as freedom to choose when to work, when to take a holiday and high earnings still exists, but an increasing number of young people in particular are now forced into self-employment rather than having the chance to opt into it. 

The workplace and the way in which our economy is driven is changing. We cannot go back, but we can face up to the future. And that means preparing for the changing work culture and ensuring that we have policies in place to safe-guard workers. We need to make sure that our unions are able to defend our rights in all working spheres, and that we have policy in place that eliminates the risk of bosses eroding those hard fought-for rights. 

Next time you take a sick day, think about that self-employed person who will need to think long and hard about whether they can really make ends meet if they do not go into work that day even though their doctor has advised against it. 

Ria Bernard is Vice Chair of the Young Fabians. Follow her on Twitter at @RiaB_22


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