Hired: precarious work and the co-operative alternative

What’s work like for you?

A book out this month is an eye-opener on what work is like for the growing number of people who are self-employed, in agency work or on zero hour contracts. Hired is in a long tradition of writers and journalists looking to tell the story of people typically unheard, by going undercover. The author James Bloodworth worked in Rugeley, Blackpool, South Wales and London in low wage roles from picking for Amazon and working in social care to telephone marketing at an insurance call centre.

9781786490148The picture that emerges of low-wage Britain is grim – full of risk, poor for health and open to exploitation. “I hate it, I hate it here” one colleague hissed through chipped teeth.

Organising work through agencies means that those who in name are self-employed and free, in reality are subject to daily abuses of power and daily intrusions of their freedom.  When asking for a copy of his contract, the author was told that a contract did not exist because he was on a zero-hours contract. “If you had the temerity to ask why you had not been paid your full wages that week” he writes “they would talk to you as if you were something they had scraped off the bottom of their shoe.” 

The same abuses operate in housing, with a rising class of rapacious rentiers – unscrupulous landlords, sometimes first- or second-generation migrants themselves. They earn your trust until you are comfortably placed and then up the ante, demanding ever more money for rent and deposits.

What are the alternatives? As ever, alongside policy change, the practical hope comes from trade unions and potentially co-operatives. One colleague quoted in the book, Steve, says of trade unions: “I remember when I were seventeen. I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m not interested. What’s the point in giving them an extra £2 a week?’ Ten, fifteen years later, it’s like, they’re worth their weight in gold, they really are.”

Work for me brings me today to Cardiff, where we are holding a roundtable courtesy of the Wales Co-operative Centre, with trade unions and co-operatives to explore the potential of co-operative solutions.

Our report ‘Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Work’ calls 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.”

The report, commissioned by Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative College, and drawing on work supported by the Network for Social Change, Wales Co-operative Centre and the Institute for Solidarity Economics, identifies co-operative solutions as a way of ensuring a fair deal for workers in an expanding gig economy. It is a follow-up to the landmark report of two years ago – Not Alone by Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and Philip Ross.

One of the inspirations for action in the UK is Belgium-based SMart – originally the ‘mutual society for artists’. This enables precarious workers operating in the freelance sector to obtain a range of welfare benefits – including unemployment benefit. SMart also provides its 70,000 plus members with tax support and advice. Sarah de Heusch Ribassin, Project Officer for the Development Strategy Unit at Smart, who spoke at last year’s Co-op Congress says: “many of those who were self-employed found the legislation around taxes to be so complex and were afraid to do things wrong. SMart offered an alternative that meant they no longer had to worry about making errors that would affect their income.” 

Working Together also identifies Indycube as a possible blueprint for how partnerships between trade union and co-operatives can flourish. Working with the trade union Community, Indycube is a rapidly growing network for freelancers and the self-employed and offers access to workspace in more than 30 locations, predominantly across Wales. One of the latest, in Rhyl, North Wales, opens on April 18th, in partnership with WCVA.

working-togther001_with-shapes_crop-600x250Not all those who are self-employed are in precarious work, by any means. There are also effective solutions for professionals, such as the work of the member-owned IPSE. Everyone can benefit from some services that you can’t get easily on your own, and where you want a trusted provider to turn to in need.

As Mark Hooper, the inspiring founder of Indycube puts it – if you work for yourself, but don’t want to work by yourself – then a co-operative can be good for you.

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