The audio version of this can be found at the Freelance Foundations podcast page. Or you can listen below!
In North America, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September. It's a reminder for us of the gains workers have made over the past century in fair treatment, safe working conditions, and the ability to put those skills to work to make a decent living for one's family.
Freelancers are labourers even though they don't enjoy the same protections. A freelance practice is a special type of business whose focus is the provision of labour. The very origin of the word freelancer describes someone who chose, freely, under whose banner to offer his or her lance. They offered their very labour as a soldier.
Freelancing provides wonderful opportunities
That freedom — the economic freedom to make our own choices about how to best spend our time to earn a living — that's the heart and soul of a freelance practice. That principle is what allows us to build larger, more rewarding and more stable incomes than our traditionally employed counterparts.
According to the most recent State of Independence report from MBO Partners in the United States, more than 3 million freelancers earned more than $100K last year. The total economic activity of freelancers contributed almost 7% of US GDP.
But those rewards also come with their own share of risks; There's still many challenges facing those workers in the Freelance economy.
Freelancers experience a good deal of economic risk as well
Nonpayment is still rampant, with the average indy worker losing more than six thousand dollars a year in client nonpayment. That usually equals about a month's pay.
Two thirds of freelancers don't know if they have enough work lined up in their sales process. The stress and anxiety of that knowledge leads to all sorts of mental and physical health problems for freelancers, who often don't have the medical coverage to fix it.
Many employers still treat freelancers like employees, directing their hours of work, conditions of work, rate of pay and other conditions that should be of the freelancer's choosing. And they do so only because the freelancer doesn't know that choice is even possible.
In short, it's simple to exploit our labour. And it's being exploited increasingly often as we witness the rise of the gig economy and such. Given that we're all looking out for our own livelihoods, how do freelancers collectively look out for the industry's best interests?
Organizing the answer?
Would forming a union to represent freelancers help? I'm not sure. There might be some benefit to doing so. One of the great advantages we've had as freelancers is the freedom to negotiate. What you don't often learn as an employee is that everything is negotiable. Would union-style collective bargaining lead to better deals? Perhaps. I honestly don't know enough about the labour movement to make a judgement on it. I do know that as a group we share much in common with our union colleagues. It's clear that, in some way, we freelancers need to speak with one voice so that people in power might hear our needs. And we can learn a lot from a group approach to labour negotiations.
One of the reasons independent negotiating has worked well for us is that our skills are in high demand. There has been a decade-long skills shortage in the types of talents we bring to the table. To the extent that we can maintain, further develop and market these skills will determine how much of that negotiation strength remains. As the generalized work becomes more automated, our bargaining position will weaken without continued investment.
So that's the worker side. But our dual nature means we also have a lot in common with businesses. We avoid the group approach because we want to get the best deal for ourselves. Because these supports don't exist we do what we can every day to get the best for us. Because our talents lead us to being able to get something better than what we could have gotten in that group setting. We hung out our own shingle because we have something of unique value to offer, and we should be compensated well for that. We make our clients loads of money, and we want our cut of that in return.
But that's not really so different from what the best employees offer, or how unions position their arguments for their collective agreements. Work, by its very nature, is adding value. I think that it's just the structure that's different between us. So then as freelancers, how do we find that middle ground between best deal for us and things that benefit all in our industry?
I don't think any type of association would do well if it tries to focus on standard rates, job negotiation, or anything to do with what a freelancer earns beyond helping them fix a practice if it's not working right. But that's more about consulting than collective bargaining.
With or without formal representation, it is true that if more of us look out for each other, we'll all do better as a result. I would argue that as an industry we are only as strong as our weakest link. So it's in our mutual interest to help and support one another, and we know that this works. As freelancers we see this in our respected coworking spaces, meetup groups, industry associations and other informal and formal alliances. As I'm so fond of saying on the show, we might be independent but we're never alone.
Many of us don't have the capacity to organize in a formal context. So to that end, what informal things can we do that will lead to that mutual support? I offer three suggestions for this Labour Day, but I'd love to hear yours as well.
Here's what I pledge to do this year, starting now. I hope you'll join me and share what you're doing (hashtag it with #freelancepledge maybe?)
- I will cultivate relationships with freelancers in my communities, both online and local. I'll learn about their work and find ways to actively support them by offering advice and connecting them to opportunities where I'm able.
- I will actively protect other freelancers from clients who don't pay or don't value our work by sharing information with a freelancer if I know first hand there is a problem.
- I will make a daily effort to improve my practice, and share the outcome with others in my networks.
These are some of the areas where freealancers have the most difficulty. If everyone helps in smoothing out these areas for each other, it can lead to a more prosperous freelancer.
I've never been more proud to be a member of the freelance economy. And I hope you feel the same way. 2018 has been a year of great changes for me so far, so I look forward to the growth those changes will bring in 2019. Go spend some time with your family. Appreciate the benefits that workers before you have brought our society, and do your part to help indy workers have better, safer and more prosperous freelance careers in the coming year. Happy Labour Day!
That brings us to the end of another episode of Freelance Foundations. If you've enjoyed the show, then leave us a star-rating in your podcast player. Over time those nice things everyone says sure do add up. If you have question or comment, you can reach me at email@example.com. Remember freelancers, you might be indpependent, but you are never, ever alone.