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Time to legislate for decent employment rights for all

NUJ FREELANCE Organiser John Toner, speaking at the LFB's precarious work conference, said that as a trade union official he'd "always worked for the precariat, only we just call them freelances."

Ursula Huws; David Hoffman

NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner

Freelance journalism has "existed since journalism began. Sunday papers would never have existed without casuals," many of them defined under that oxymoron "regular casuals." But in the 16 years that John's been Freelance Organiser, "I've seen the number of queries about employment status go from a trickle... to almost every day."

We're increasingly witnessing "false freelancing", where it can be shown that someone has the legal status of "worker" - they can demonstrate mutuality of obligation, and a degree of control and supervision. John gave examples of sevearal such cases he has taken to court.

One newspaper columnist who had no contract for 10 years was let go. She was horrified to find she had no employment rights, no redundancy entitlement.

Another freelance worked for Telegraph every Saturday for many years, also with no contract. At the start of the year he was expected to write into the Telegraph diary the nights he wouldn't be there, when he planned to be on holiday. He was also subject to supervision. An Employment Tribunal ruled he was an employee: he got a pension.

A racing reporter showed John his letter of engagement, which directed him on Mondays to Thursdays to go to races, for which "we'll pay you X, Fridays, go to the racecourse, write a report and a preview for Saturday's race, we'll pay you Y." As he had no supervision while at the races, our correspondent was "ruled not an employee but a 'worker'... he got years of holiday pay, into the thousands."

It is hard to prove that in such cases that management are obliged to pay freelances and that they're obliged to turn up. John has taken cases where one freelance has been sitting next to someone doing exactly the same work day in day out for ten years, yet one is ruled an "employee," the other isn't.

In 2005, the International Federation of Journalists adopted a freelance charter, its Clause 5 states, "a fake or forced freelance who is economically dependent should be treated as an employee... with rights." The European Parliament has adopted a draft of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which addresses these issues - sadly, just as the UK prepares to leave the EU.

The UK Parliament recently held an inquiry into the self-employed, while the TUC has adopted a resolution declaring that "the rules of employment status should be modernised... the same decent floor of employment rights" should be enjoyed by the self-employed too.