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Lessons for a collective voice in a freelance world

Bectu Red Eye Campaign Web

It feels like the economy is on the change.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures suggest that self-employment is now at a record high, accounting for 15.1% of all people in work – or nearly 5 million people . Responding to innovation and change is in the DNA of trade unions, but this new emerging economy throws up very different challenges to previous periods. Like other creative sector unions, Prospect and its BECTU sector have been grappling with these changes for some time. Together, we have over 20,000 self-employed members.

Here are four lessons from our experience.

1. Freelancers still need a collective voice

Much of the debate around the gig economy has focused on individual rights and modern working practices, as with Matthew Taylor’s review . But we shouldn’t forget the role of collective voice – this is what makes us stand out from, say, an insurance company or shared workspace provider.

Bringing freelancers together is about providing a shared identity, advocacy and looking at how we create new forms of collective bargaining to raise industry standards. A good example is the BECTU sector’s new Eyes Half Shut campaign which aims to tackle the scourge of long hours for freelance film and TV crew  with a shocking survey report and petition highlighting the negative impact of long hours on productivity. Poor working conditions affect individuals but they are also collective issues with much wider impact. We need to create a sense of empowerment for freelance workers.

2. Build on experience

Freelancers in the creative industries have been a key part of our BECTU sector for decades. Our approach is based on the premise of empowering freelancers (“what can freelancers do together for themselves?”) and our organising strategy, communications and services are designed around supporting that.

We help freelance workers to organise themselves and treat the union as a source of experience, advice and administrative assistance – one that helps to create a sense of identity and pools knowledge to tackle shared concerns. This combines the best of union organising with new ways of working and extending our reach into growing gig areas, in the creative industries, communication and digital sectors. This approach is not without its challenges and adaptability is key.

3. Innovate

The change in the economy and labour market has spawned new organisations providing support services to freelancers, but too many of them do this based on individual rights alone. There are some great approaches developing across the union movement, from Community and its IndyCube partnership to the work of the GMB on low-paid freelance work. Diversity is important to reach different people. We need to challenge ourselves to offer new services – such as legal and accounting services, tailored public liability insurance, and help developing new skills. But, then we need to go further – because unions also need to be a collective voice.

For example, the BECTU sector of Prospect was a pioneer in helping freelance members chase non-payment. If a company fails to pay up, we seek to recover the money with no charge to the member, rather than using a third-party agent who takes a cut. Employers who are slow or fail to pay have their names published in the union journal and could face legal action.  And we are still innovating, thinking about new campaigns, advocacy and support to build a stronger presence for our freelance members.

4. Be ambitious

If gig economy workers have low bargaining strength, then we need to reinvent the traditions of collective bargaining, as the GMB has done by taking on Uber through the courts.

In film and TV, our BECTU sector works with employers on grading schemes and lobbies for professional industry standards. BECTU members get together to agree rate cards. They use social media to promote compliance with the rates, and build a culture that encourages professionals to refuse work that doesn’t pay properly.

At the same time the sector has signed its first-ever collective TV drama sector agreement, which codifies overtime practices – a vital step in the right direction. Our grounding breaking agreement for major motion pictures covers terms and conditions for many freelancers, small businesses and employers.

Strengthening our members’ bargaining power in turn leads to smarter working and improved productivity, helping the sectors they work in to make a successful contribution to the UK’s industrial capacity and success.