Self employed

Working independently is harder than it should be. We’re doing something about it

Freelancer, temp, contractor, zero hours contractor, small business? Why is getting clear, accessible info so hard?

If you’ve started working in the last fifteen years, chances are your career isn’t shaping up like your parents’.

Whereas most baby boomers got jobs, more and more of us are working independently. It’s not just freelancing, or starting businesses – we’re also more likely to be setting up side-hustles like making and selling stuff online for money or passion.

Work has become a lot more flexible: we could be on a short-term or zero-hours contract, temping through an agency, or working for a company like Deliveroo or Uber which treats us as self-employed.

When independent work means bad information or a lower income, it makes life more difficult and stressful, and that’s bad for the economy as a whole.

Together with a friend, I’m launching a platform to help. Here’s why.

Working independently can be great

At its best, independent work can be a dream: it gives you the chance to earn more and enjoy the flexibility to organise your own schedule. A lot of us enjoy it. Working independently gives us the chance to do work we’re proud of and believe in, find our best path through life, and have time to work on side projects as well.

But it’s not always easy #1: information

But independent work isn’t always like that. It isn’t even normally like that.

Firstly, a lot of independent workers feel like they’re in the dark. When you work independently, you need clear, reliable information. You don’t always know which tools and services to use, what’s good value, or what your rights are. You need to learn how to chase payments, and how to make sure you’re paying the right level of tax.

If you’re a contractor, temp, or self-employed worker you don’t always know what you’re supposed to charge, let alone the details of your entitlement to holidays, sick pay, pensions, maternity or paternity pay, or what to do if you don’t get paid at all.

But it’s not always easy #2: Independent workers tend not to make much money, which is part of a bigger problem

Secondly, independent workers tend not to make much money.

The typical self-employed person was earning roughly 40 per cent less than the typical person in employment in 2011-12. Half of all self-employed people earn £352 a week or less.

It’s not just the self-employed: wages for young people are barely rising anymore. Typical incomes for people under 34 have barely changed since 2002. Which means that someone starting work fifteen years ago most likely hasn’t had a pay rise.. but has had to deal with rising prices.

It’s harder to deal with this as an independent worker. If you don’t have a boss, you don’t really have someone to negotiate with to make sure you earn more each year. The more independent workers there are, the harder it is for typical wages to rise.

Do politicians have the answer?

I’m an independent worker, and spotted these problems emerging for me and others like me. Just one example: when I was temping, I’d get my payslip at the end of the week and realise that for all my years of formal education, if the agency had deducted something wrongly, I didn’t know if I would have spotted it.

So I started thinking about who had the power to solve these things.

At first, I figured it must be the politicians – they can set some rules by which we make sure workers are being treated well, independent or not. But after a few years working in politics, I saw for myself that that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Most of the politicians who care about the issue of non-rising wages (and not all of them do) are themselves looking around for ways to solve it.

I talked to my friend Jenny Imhoff, an independent contractor working in tech, and realised that many of her friends and colleagues faced similar issues too. When it comes to dealing with things like tax, pensions, business structures, and a million and one other questions, you have to figure it out yourself, and a lot of the information and structures were set up for an old way of working.

Why is finding accessible, clear information so difficult?

Why is it so hard for independent workers to get clear and accessible information? Why is it so hard to earn well? After these experiences, Jenny and I decided to put our heads together to work on these problems.

We’re setting up Howbox, a site to help independent workers take more control of their working lives.

To start with, we’ll be publishing ‘how to’ articles for independent workers on tools, tips, and tactics, rights, campaigns and ways to organise and get paid properly. We’ll have a question and answer section where independent workers can learn from others’ experiences and discover campaigns, products and services that can help.

Plenty of us have solved most problems before; Howbox will be a place to share the knowhow.

When we launch we’ll have advice from Nicola Thorp, actor, campaigner and former temp who organised a petition against sexist dress codes; Adrian Gregory, who runs a temp agency and campaigns against ripoffs in the industry; Matt Perkins from 1Tap on what you’re supposed to do with your expense receipts at the end of the year, and many others.

To keep in touch, join our brand new Howbox Facebook page. We’re not going to solve all the problems of independent work overnight, but together, we can start to make it easier.

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