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Getting Organised: low-paid self employment and trade unions

Author: Fabian Society

This report examines how unions are currently organising self-employed workers and seeks to identify best practice and to make proposals to improve organisation in the future.

This report examines how unions are currently organising self-employed workers and seeks to identify best practice and to make proposals to improve organisation in the future. The report focuses on the low-paid self-employed and concludes there is ample scope for unions to develop a membership ‘offer’ directed at these workers, including both those who are genuinely self-employed and those who experience ‘bogus’ self-employment. It also focuses on the need for better use of ‘WorkerTech’ - technology that supports workers - and digital tools by unions to better connect with the self-employed. The report also identifies the need for coordinated campaigning action to address legal and regulatory issues around self-employment.

Embrace WorkerTech solutions for self-employed members

Platforms like Work-It and FairCrowdWork can be adapted to the needs of the self-employed in Britain while commonplace apps like Slack and social media services can be readily used to promote ‘connective action’, as has been demonstrated by recent industrial action among fast-food workers. Since a traditional shop floor is often absent, new technology-enabled approaches are required to help workers communicate with each other and to form campaigns. As union membership is generally acknowledged to be an ‘experience good’ (ie its benefits are difficult to observe in advance), unions should make a particular effort to talk to new self-employed members proactively and discuss how they can help them in their particular situation so as to secure their ongoing membership.

Provide tailored insurance and support services that appeal to low-paid self-employed members

Unions should work with external providers to give the self-employed access to ameliorating coverage and to offer services that support self-employed workers in the particular challenges they may face, for example tax compliance.

Encourage and aid efforts to set up cooperatives of self-employed workers

Cooperatives formed by low-paid self-employed workers offer the opportunity to collaborate on the provision of administrative business functions and allow the low-paid greater scope to expand their business. They can complement the work of unions and protect against some legal challenges, resulting from interpretation of competition law, that organising workers could otherwise pose.

Offer training provision for self-employed members

Access to high-quality training provision can be especially difficult for the low-paid self-employed, but it can offer a route towards greater earnings and job satisfaction. The experience of unions catering to self-employed workers in the entertainment sector suggests that becoming a provider of such training can help unions and workers to better defend their interests. Similar provision should be extended to self-employed workers in other sectors.

Build partnerships beyond the labour movement to appeal to self-employed workers

By building partnerships with services that low-paid self-employed workers use, unions will have an opportunity to raise awareness and recruit members, while also being able to promote the interests of those workers. For example, co-working spaces are becoming more common and present an opportunity for unions to forge partnerships and encourage organisation of the selfemployed workforce.

Campaign for the clarification of employment statuses, including a statutory definition of self-employment 

A statutory definition of self-employment would end the position of self-employment as an ‘anything else’ category and give greater clarity to workers. It would help the voluntarily self-employed to defend their rights and help prevent companies from abusing the system.

Campaign for the Small Business Commissioner to gain greater powers to penalise late payments and for businesses to embrace codes of practice in procuring external services from self-employed contractors

Late payments and unclear contracts mean that the low-paid self-employed can commonly experience cash flow problems and don’t realise all the advantages of self-employment that they should have. Unions, especially where they have recognition agreements with businesses already, should seek to negotiate codes of best practice when it comes to engaging contractors and should campaign for greater legal guarantees for self-employed workers on pay and conditions. The Small Business Commissioner offers a potential statutory basis for enforcement action against late payments. 


21 June 2019

Getting Organised: low-paid self employment and trade unions