The Rights of the Self-Employed: A Principle Challenge for the Trade Union Movement

The following article is an excerpt from our latest printed Ecosprinter titled Reclaim Your Rights! – The Social Issue. We decided to bring you the articles from this edition in a digital form as well.

by Dr. Sam Murray

We as Greens strive for wide-ranging legislative social and welfare packages to ensure that climate justice and social justice sit side by side. To achieve this, we, as Greens must work with trade unions to ensure that the just transition is truly fair on all levels of society and to remove any notion that tackling climate change is a middle-class political past time – it is not, it is a harrowing reality. This collaboration is vital, and with the failure of social democratic parties, the Greens must be-come the natural allies for trade unions.

As the world of work changes, the trade unions still have a shift to make, particularly on under-standing the challenges of self-employment. The trade union movement has been focused on the public sector, leaving any notion of freelance work or self-employment to the fringes contained as issues within small unions.

As a member of the Musicians’ Union in the UK I see this a lot interacting with the Trade Union Congress, who have to be constantly reminded that they do have self-employed members for whom legislation acts differently, and who are more vulnerable than regular employees and who are left without the protections that larger union members have. It is often forgotten that self-employed workers don’t have union representatives to protect them, don’t have the same basic working rights, and when they are exploited, they have limited resources for support. Trade unions like the Musicians’ Union have become vital in providing the most basic of support and protection that many employed workers never have to worry about. Self-employed workers have been left be-hind when it comes to workers’ rights– it is this frontier that must be tackled if social rights are to be truly universal.

Only now Trade Unions are waking up to the concept of the gig economy, the mass exploitation of self-employed workers using loopholes and gaps in workers legislation to turbo boost capitalism. We are seeing companies like Uber, Deliveroo and parcel delivery companies come under the spot-light as they carry out bogus self-employment practices to ensure workers can be exploited for minimal pay giving these companies excessive profit.

What many larger trade unions forget is that workers like musicians and other creatives have been through such practices for years – it is even called the ‘gig economy’ because of the way musicians are treated on gigs. Young musicians in particular are facing constant exploitation: being told to play gigs for free for exposure, be-cause their profession is really a hobby, being offered one drink as payment, despite having spent hours rehearsing, and then taking great effort to move equipment to a gig. This exploitation needs to stop.

Self-employed workers are denied a vast amount of fundamental worker protections and rights that employed staff have. In many countries across the EU many self-employed parents cannot access shared parental leave or maternity pay, with some countries only offering maternity pay to self-employed mothers enforcing a sexist trope that only women should care for babies. This ignores the role of fathers and non-binary parents, and it often remains vague surrounding the access for same-sex couples. There is also limited regulations on sick pay, meaning that when a self-employed worker is ill there is no safety net below them and they will lose a day’s pay, which then often means a scramble for work to make it up. Self-employed workers, whilst often deter-mining their own hours and often put under unrealistic pressure from clients, who expect fast turnarounds, are expected to work for long hours beyond average expectations compared to an employed full-time worker.

The Green movement must offer solutions for self-employed workers, including adequate social rights and protections for them. We have already led the way in calling for a basic safety net of Universal Basic Income, which would vastly improve conditions for self-employed workers, and offer basic protections and financial security – but more is to be done. Working with the trade union movement we must devise and propose a welfare reform package of maternity rights, protection from exploitation and mental health support. For a Green society to be truly just, we must protect the future of self-employed work.

Sam is a former co-chair of the Young Greens of England and Wales and former FYEG EC Member. He correctly sits on the UK Trade Union Congress Young Workers Forum representing the Musicians Union.

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