Fairness for whom?

THE GOVERNMENT'S "Fairness at Work" White Paper is out at last. What does it mean for freelances?

As expected, the proposal gives workers a right to trade union representation where a majority of the defined "bargaining unit" vote in favour -- with the added hurdle that 40% of those entitled to vote must support the union. Where a majority of a "bargaining unit" already belongs to the relevant unions, no ballot is needed.

Experience in the USA shows that some employers and clients will inevitably fight dirty on the rules. Two issues concern freelances particularly. First: inclusion in a ballot of "employees" could weaken our cases for retaining authors' rights in our work, and against taxation at source. Second: employers might try to "pack" the "bargaining unit" with occasional contributors, who are certainly less likely to vote.

The White Paper, in line with European Union policy, seeks to prevent abuse of "fake freelance" status as a means of casualising workforces. Also like the EU, it shows a poor grasp of the existence of "voluntary freelances" with distinct interests. To make matters more complicated, many of us fall into both groups, working shifts one week and on our own the next.

On 8 June London Freelance Branch passed the following motion:

This branch notes

1) the invitation to submit written submissions to the DTI select committee on the white paper Fairness At Work [by 31 July].

2) the need for a clear definition of employee in the white paper to distinguish between:

a) casualised workers, who work as employees but without the benefits of employment; and

b) voluntary freelances, who wish to retain their self-employed status.

This branch believes that

3) the status of casualised workers in relation to the bargaining unit should be very carefully considered (but we should continue to campaign vigorously for their rights as full employees).

4) including voluntary freelances could jeopardise their livelihoods, if it undermined their freelance status, and could allow companies to thwart recognition campaigns by including occasional contributors, non-journalists etc, in the group to be balloted.

This branch therefore recommends

5) that the NEC instruct the general secretary to organise a submission on this topic to be sent to the DTI committee by 23 July, with the assistance of LFB, and that the union draws attention to the different needs of casualised and voluntary freelances in all its campaigning on the white paper.

6) The submission should be sent on the relevant European Union directorates.

This leaves a big question: can the eventual Act of Parliament help voluntary freelances get recognition to negotiate over our concerns? Many print publications and Birtized production companies run almost entirely on the work of voluntary freelances. So there is a strong argument that excluding us (or, exactly, us when we are wearing that hat) would undermine the whole exercise. Legally, there is a problem: we are regarded as small businesses. All proposals will be received with gratitude.

Jul 1998
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