Beyond the gig economy

Empowering the self-employed workforce

Self-employment has risen significantly over the past two decades. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragile nature of work for many people in the UK – and the self-employed workforce is no exception. In this report, we bring to the fore some of the shared challenges faced by self-employed people, especially women, in the pursuit of improved working lives that are more autonomous and accommodating. Policy interventions aimed at improving the conditions of self-employed work tend to be reductive and fail to address wider social factors which impact on self-employed workers. For example, the narrative around stamping out bogus forms of self-employment often fails to recognise the power structures within working life, or the wider social and economic factors which contribute to exploitative work practices, . We explore the experience of working life in a more expansive way, drawing upon social and cultural experiences as well as material factors.

To draw out this distinction, in Section 1 we provide an overview of the state of self-employment today in terms of the demographic make-up of this changing workforce. From this, in Section 2, we draw on the experiences of women in self-employment in particular. Our analysis examines self-employed life in the round: rather than isolate the self-employed worker from the social world they exist in, we explore factors which interact with this such as security, autonomy, identity, and mental health. In Sections 3 and 4 we consider how these issues could be addressed through policy and good practice, laying out principles for good self-employment” and highlighting examples of self-organised solutions set up by self-employed communities that might hold lessons for policymakers.

We conclude with a series of recommendations for legislative change that recognises the self-employed workforce as a significant and growing portion of our labour force. We recommend changes in the approaches through which their needs are met by public and collective provision of advice, financial support, and guidance. These centre on four key dimensions:

  1. Meeting the service and support needs of a growing self-employment workforce, including through provision of new self-employment centres across the country. NEF proposes a pilot scheme of 100 centres targeted at locations in which post-pandemic unemployment is expected to be particularly high, and would have heavy involvement from trade unions. These could also help breathe life back into ailing high streets and provide a physical route for outreach to workers facing some of the worst conditions.
  2. Introducing a Minimum Income Guarantee to ensure that self-employed people (and all other UK workers) benefit from an adequate safety net and always receive a living wage.
  3. Ensuring parity of rights and social security for a growing self-employed workforce, the lack of which was exposed by the pandemic.
  4. Ensuring a collective voice and the enforcement of rights for a more transient workforce.

Image: iStock

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