Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, argues the growing ranks of self-employed workers need to get organised to address their precarious working conditions.

Self employment levels used to be a measure of how underdeveloped an economy was. Now, in the form of the ‘gig economy’, it has become something that is celebrated across developed countries.

In the US, new figures suggest that all net employment growth since 2005 is down to alternative work arrangements such as self employment. The reality is that we are seeing a new system of work evolve, enabled in part by new technology platforms, with its own political economy of risk and reward and just as previous eras saw the emergence of trade unions and co-operatives as a self-organising response, so the same is needed again today.

Here in the UK we are starting a new tax year. Fresh evidence shows that more than a quarter of the UK workforce is self-employed, and this figure is set to increase. This ongoing rise in the number of freelancers signals a fundamental shift in the nature of work.

Some, driven by the lure of freedom, are choosing to go self-employed; many others are going freelance out of necessity. Changes to the labour market mean that zero hours contracts, part time work and ‘portfolio’ careers are becoming more and more the norm.

Our new report, Not Alone, looks at recent trends in self-employment, both here in the UK and across the world. What we are seeing is more and more freelancers coming together and forming co-operatives in order to create security and cut costs for themselves. The co-ops are allowing people to work for themselves whilst sharing costs with others – whether that’s the cost of marketing products, workspace or back office services.

Take RICOL, a new interpreters’ co-op in London. The service for interpreters in London was shaken up in 2011 when the government moved from a national register of public service interpreters to a contract for all of England and Wales from a single provider, won by Applied Language Solutions, owned by Capita. To deliver on the contract, the firm then offered court interpreters work at what was in effect between 25% and 40% of the established rate.

There was a mass refusal to sign up and a protest group was launched, Interpreters for Justice. Many new interpreters hired by ALS were poorly qualified. Severe delays and chaos in the courts were widely reported in the press.

With help from Co-operatives UKRICOL was established in November 2012 as a London-based interpreters and translators co-operative. They are now generating new work and contracts with law firms, commercial companies, human rights organisations and media companies.

It is early days for co-ops like these in the UK, but there are inspiring examples from overseas to learn from, such as the Self Employed Women’s Association in India, a trade union and co-operative network giving voice and opportunity to 1.7 million members.

As freelancing grows, we need a more systematic approach to supporting them. Not alone concludes with four recommendations centred on, on the one hand, trade unions and co-ops making a radical shift and working together to support self-employed people and, on the other, developing representation and legislation for self-employed people in government.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, the network for Britain’s thousands of co-operative businesses. The report can be downloaded from www.uk.coop/notalone.

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