Freelancers – ‘the canary in the coalmine’

From earlier this year, a useful roundup from The Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (NESTA) of the policy issues governments need to bear in mind when thinking about creative freelancers.

Their understanding of Creative Freelancers is as follows:

The Government defines someone’s employment status as self-employed if they run their business for themselves and take responsibility for its success or failure. The term ‘freelancer’ is less clearly defined. It is sometimes used as a subcategory of self-employment – for example in the Labour Force Survey where respondents can choose to select it as one of up to four terms to describe their employment status. IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) have defined freelancers as those self-employed people working in highly skilled managerial, professional and technical occupations; this includes occupations from lawyers and accountants, doctors and scientist, writers and designers to high-level managers and directors, to list a few. In practice they are often treated as synonymous with self-employment as a whole, as is the case in this briefing.

They go on to make the following policy recommendations:

UK Government should consider calls for a Freelance Commissioner to build more resilience in the UK’s self-employed workforce. One of the primary ambitions of this Commissioner should be to improve national data collection on types and structures of self-employment. Another aspect of this role might be to come up with a strategy to ensure clear government communication of key policy initiatives to a fragmented freelancer workforce.

Across the UK, no National or UK-wide skills policy should be written without fully recognising the structures, opportunities and limitations of freelance work.

Whilst the UK Government’s ‘Plan for Growth’ mentions the UK-wide supports for self-employed people during the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be critical to ensure that the skills interventions that are mentioned like ‘employer-led skills bootcamp’ do not disadvantage those sectors that are most reliant on freelancers.

Devolved administrations and arms-length bodies should consider either introducing, or ensuring they sustain, bespoke sector-specific trainee schemes. Governments should make sure they do not crowd out effective initiatives with new generic interventions like the apprenticeship levy which may not suit the needs of every sector.

This ‘elite points-based visa’ and ‘Global Talent Visa’ offer an important opportunity to ensure that skilled freelancers are able to work in the UK, particularly those at the same skill level as their full-time employed counterparts. These changes to the current immigration policy should be made with the economic needs of sectors like the creative industries in mind and must address the skills demands of sub-sectors like design, screen, and the arts as well as of digital or science-focused businesses.

In ongoing support following the COVID-19 pandemic, governments need to recognise the diverse nature of the freelancer workforce, and the specific needs of creative freelancers in sectors that are both the secret of the UK’s creative success but also the most vulnerable parts of these sector’s workforces.

They also offered this ‘policy insight’

Freelancers are the canary in the coalmine for the economy, whether in creative roles or not. As policymakers consider impediments to a diverse and inclusive workforce, they need to consider particular challenges facing the self-employed which are an essential part of the talent base in sectors like the creative industries. Although this briefing is aimed at policymakers, a parallel PEC research strand highlights the industry change needed in this area.


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