The current coronavirus pandemic has bought many problems into sharp relief. Our NHS and social care teams are putting themselves at risk in services that have been cut to the bone from austerity. We are making sacrifices to ensure we keep the most vulnerable safe. We watch with concern as the infection rate rises and hear reports of loved ones who are sick.
In these times we are also rightfully considering how to support those who have been forced out of work and businesses that are in danger of closing because of coronavirus. Emergency measures are being put in place, but we will have to wait to see what the long-term impact of these are.
The self-employed, in particular, are finding themselves in a difficult situation. At the Fabian Society conference in January, I called for the left to do more to represent the self-employed.
Self-employment has been steadily rising in the UK and there are now more than five million self-employed workers. This is not only because of ‘bogus self employment’ but because more people are choosing to be self-employed. The world of work is changing. We prize flexibility, autonomy and job satisfaction. Social and technological changes are making it easier to work from home and to work hours around other commitments.
The coronavirus pandemic is showing that these workers are poorly represented politically. We must listen to the challenges faced by this group and be the party that speaks up for them and protects their rights.
Last week, the chancellor made a statement on support for business and workers. But there was no mention of the self-employed. Our benefits system is not designed to support people whose income can fluctuate wildly and may be seasonal. The self-employed are also nervous about the new coronavirus business interruption loan scheme because there is no guarantee of work in the future. We are seeing the effects of the lack of coherent representation for these workers.
There are many challenges ahead of us as we take stock and rebuild. The status and representation of self-employed workers is one area that has been shown as lacking and needs to be addressed urgently as the growth of self-employment is set to accelerate.
The absolute minimum is a statutory definition of self-employment. This will assist in fighting bogus self-employment but will also enable an understanding of future trends in self-employed work. Statistics that report the numbers and pay rely on self-reporting and figures from tax returns are always going to be lagging and do not give a true picture of the situation.
The self-employed also need strong political representation. Collectivisation of workers is a key principle of socialism. Indeed, socialism was born through the organisation of workers in the factories of the industrial revolution. Organisation for a fragmented self-employed workforce is harder to achieve, but we must make every effort to do so.
Collectivisation enables the negotiations on pay and conditions but it can also be used to ensure that barriers to self-employment, for those that wish it, can be reduced. If someone cannot find a place within the workforce then they should be encouraged to start their own. This would include offering training so that statutory requirements are met, support around taxation and even advice on how to employ workers.
There are also less obvious areas that have been highlighted in the last few weeks that show the predicaments of the self-employed which have been overlooked. The increase in home working has prompted concern over isolation and a potential for the increase in domestic violence. This has been an issue for the self-employed for a long time. Labour party policy must catch up to ensure that our policies fit the needs of all our workers. Some self-employed workers are in business with their partners, or work from home. Labour party policy on paid leave in the case of domestic abuse doesn’t assist these workers who face losing their business and their home if they leave their partners. We risk having workers isolated and facing abuse alone unless we find ways of helping someone build a new business.
Self-employment is an aspiration for many and does not fit easily into the class narrative. Self-employed workers can enjoy a status that self-determination and owning a business affords. However, socialist policies including secure housing, free healthcare and public ownership are more important to the self-employed who derive no security from their work. Our narrative must explicitly include the self-employed worker, and not just as a problem to be solved, so that our policies are ahead of current trends in the labour market.