Are we a ‘business cartel’?

PUBLISHERS and broadcasters are using competition regulations to stop freelances publishing rates guides.  In some countries, gcvernments have ruled minimum terms agreements and published rates to be illegal business cartels under European Union law, interfering with "free" trade.

Seamus Dooley, NUJ Irish Secretary, says that following the passing of an Irish interpretation of European competition law, a complaint was made to the Competition Authority regarding rates for SIPTU camera operators. This union was then forced to sign an undertaking not to negotiate collectively or to set rates for camera operators. The alternative to signing the agreement would have been costly legal action.

This pressure has curtailed the NUJ's right to make collective freelance agreements. Dooley says, "we continue to represent freelances as individuals, " and adds that "Ireland has a strong tradition of chapel support for freelances... Many freelances are about to get employments rights under part-time work legislation anyway".

Guy Thornton, NUJ Netherlands Branch Chair, says that following the Dutch competition authority's interpretation of the Competition Act, Dutch journalists' union NVJ wound up its collective freelance rates page. It plans a "tariffs monitor" which would contain only "rates that people are getting in practice".

In Spain, screenwriters, regularly engaged for short periods of work, reportedly approached the management of the public broadcaster to establish a collective agreement and were threatened with court action for attempted restraint of trade. Similar problems have been reported in Denmark.

Freelance and Calderdale branch secretary Andrew Bibby says this is "a potentially absolutely crucial issue for freelances... If a similar ruling was to be applied in the UK... our hopes of developing an effective trade unionism for freelances would be enormously damaged".

Bibby adds that "the ludicrously inequitable relationship between a freelance running their own business and a major publishing company would be of no account - under competition law, we are both treated as equal partners, as businesses negotiating a contract".

The precedents set by the 1901 Taff Vale Railway dispute and the 1906 Trade Disputes Act that followed mean that UK law seems not to regard groups organized into trade unions as cartels. This is likely to influence any interpretation of European competition law in this country.

The introduction to the new Freelance Fees Guide (below) makes it clear that it contains only suggested rates, and that these are based on an actual survey - the Rate for the Job.

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