The UK is failing its ‘precarious’ workers says new report

Welsh-based Indycube a blueprint for how partnerships between trade union and co-operatives can help freelancers and self-employed flourish

20 Mar, 18

UK is failing its growing army of self-employed workers according to a new report released today (Tuesday 20 March).

With 7.1 million workers engaged in ‘precarious’ employment and 77 per cent of the self-employed living in poverty, the report Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Workcalls for increased protection for those operating in the so-called gig economy.  

“Not only do they have almost no security, but while the average employed worker is losing out year by year in real terms, the self-employed are doing even worse, earning less each year in cash terms,” said co-author Alex Bird. “1.7 million of those in precarious employment are earning less than the national minimum wage, with no real enforcement of the law, and the self-employed are not even covered by the existing legislation.”

There are solutions according to Working Together. The report, commissioned by Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative College, and supported by the Network for Social Change, Wales Co-operative Centre and the Institute for Solidarity Economics, identifies ‘co-operative solutions’ as well as partnerships with trade unions as a way of ensuring a fair deal for workers in an expanding gig economy.

It calls for the UK to replicate the ‘umbrella co-operative model’ for supporting freelancers and other precarious workers and identifies Welsh-based Indycube as a blueprint for how partnerships between trade union and co-operatives can flourish. Indycube is a rapidly growing network for freelancers and the self-employed and offers access to workspace in more than 30 locations in Wales, with one recently opened in England. The not-for-profit co-operative works with the trade union Community to offer a range of benefits including advice on tax, insurance, pensions and employment law.

Mark Hooper, Founder of Indycube, sums up how the relationship with Community has developed. He said: “We see this as the way to grow with Community’s resources, capacity and knowledge, and the plan provides an opportunity for third party representation of our self-employed members. On a practical level, freelancers often find themselves presented with complex contracts full of legal jargon, which can result in problematic agreements and issues with payment. Community’s legal team are able to advise on these sorts of documents which many independent workers wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.”

He continued: “Fifty-one per cent of invoices are paid late, a figure we think is far too high, and Community’s support has enabled us to make progress in this area. Thanks to Community’s status as an established union, Indycube has been able to cement itself in the minds of policy-makers and others as a voice for the fast-growing group of independent workers. The more members we have, the stronger our collective voice, and the more work we can all do to make our futures better.”

Les Bayliss, National Officer and Head of Special Projects for Community, said: “Our partnership with Indycube is one of a number of newly developed initiatives where, as a trade union, we are reaching out to new workers in today’s world of work. We will continue to listen to and understand what they need from a trade union, providing support, representation, mediation and settlement. Working together we hope to develop a ‘one voice’ approach to the needs of self-employed, freelance workers, speaking out and campaigning on the issues that affect them most.”

Derek Walker, Chief Executive of the Wales Co-operative Centre, said:

“As this report has shown, there is emerging best practice in Europe, USA and right here on our doorstep in Wales, that illustrates how fair and decent work for precarious workers can be secured through unions and co-operatives building an alliance. We are excited to see how Indycube’s joint venture with Community develops and we will continue to look into other co-operatives in Wales that work in this precariat space, to consider this innovative approach.”

Other Welsh examples where trade unions and co-operatives are working jointly, include:

Community Lives Consortium: This social care co-operative has operated as a co-op since 2001. It provides housing and social care services for severely disabled adults in Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot. Unison has supported the development of the co-operative since 2001 and has a place on the member board of directors.

The full Working Together report can be viewed and downloaded here.