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Proud precariat

HOW DO WE understand and respond to the growing pressure on freelance workers? Those questions led London Freelance Branch hold a high-level event on 11 March. Branch Co-Chair Pennie Quinton introduced our mission: to "protect and survive". Our keynote speaker was Professor Guy Standing, research associate at SOAS and author of The Precariat and A Precariat Charter. His latest book, Basic Income - And How We Can Make it Happen, launches on 8 May 2017.

Our other speakers were Ursula Huws, Nicola Hawkins, Mags Dewhurst and John Toner. The Trades Union Congress has since organised an event.

Guy Standing; David Hoffman

Guy Standing (standing)

People are being forced into insecure labour, with increasing restrictions on our autonomy about how and when we work. Those of us who choose to be freelance are under pressure, not least through the market effect of the masses forced to freelance. The Trades Union Congress reported 3.2 million in precarious work in 2016. In September it passed a resolution calling for those in insecure work to have the same rights as employees.

We're sold "the gig economy" - which, says Guy, "romanticises it... somehow suggests you're in rock band going from gig to gig". The reality is that "more and more people are habituated to accept and internalise a life of unstable labour and insecure labour," their working lives often directed by apps via smartphones. For millions there's no paid sick leave, no non-wage benefits, only "money wages".

In this environment, "most people don't know what's the optimum use of their time - Should I network more? Should I hang around? " This, says Guy, creates "immense psychological stress, mental health problems... the precariatised mind." Sound familiar?

In the precariat you do a lot of unpaid work, "work for labour", (all those aptitude tests and "trials" you need to go through to get work), "work for the state" (doing your taxes, bureaucracy around working tax credit and so on), "work for waiting around, work for retraining." In effect, "you're doing more and more work off labour time" - "work that doesn't get counted" - none of which is paid, of course.

We also have to apply for thousands of jobs, get shortlisted and so on, often by algorithms. Each layer of the application process is taking up time and stress. Even those with MBAs, those you'd think were the most employable, now "have to apply for 38 jobs and go through six layers of selection... before they get one interview." All this takes up "a vast amount of time doing... work, (it's) hardly leisure!"

Precarious workers now no longer have "a clear occupational narrative... an identity you can write on your visas and when entering a hotel." Many journalists who interview Guy don't think they'll be journalists when they next meet. "The ethics and standards are not passed on." We're losing rights-based state benefits too. All states are moving to means-testing and behaviour-testing.

Attendees who put questions; David Hoffman

Some of the attendees who put questions at LFB's meeting on precarious work

Guy related how the word "precarious" has its origin in "obtaining by prayer": you're in a dependent situation, you have to be obsequious.

The growing number of people in precarious labour is no accident, not some result of failure by government, says Guy. "Government policies and corporate policies want a very large precariat."

But the precariat are not all victims. Guy quoted Aristotle: "the insecure man is the free man"; we freelances are at least spared the grind of a job for 30 years. There is, he notes, a "progressive part" of the precariat - people who went to university and were promised a future, careers, stability, advance, "sold a lottery ticket that's worth less and less - this part of precariat... are not going to vote for Trump."

Before around 2011, precariat folk saw themselves as failures; after the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, people writing to Guy self-identify as "proud precariat." Guy's had 400 invitations to speak in 37 countries. He now strongly believes the precariat are trying to mobilise.

Old labour union leaders seem to want to convert what they see as atypical workers into typical workers. Guy feels they "don't get it" and until they get it they won't succeed.

Attendees who put questions; David Hoffman

More contributions to the conference from the audience

What is to be done? To understand what's going on, Guy proposes that we need to think about the emergence of new classes, including the precariat at the beck and call of a shrinking secure "salariat".

There needs to be a redistribution, not so much of money but of security and control of our time. Guy is involved in pilot basic income schemes, where everyone gets some sort of unconditional income from the state or a charitable institution. These "work, in Finland, in India, they improve health, welfare, people who have it work more productively", are "more altruistic... they don't walk around terrified." In January India's government adopted a report backing basic income. Guy says of basic income, "we could do it in India": but the obstacle is "political."

The very successful meeting also heard from Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, our own John Toner, NUJ Freelance Organiser, Nicola Hawkins of actors' union Equity's Executive Council and Mags Dewhurst, chair of Independent Workers Union of Great Britain Couriers and Logistics Branch, a bicycle courier who won the right to paid holidays and minimum pay in a legal case with courier company City Sprint.

More speakers

2 May 2017

The Trades Union Congress event on "how unions and government can tackle insecure work and the gig economy" has moved to 26 June. Speakers include Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary; and Matthew Taylor, who is leading the government's "Independent Review of Insecure Work". It's at Congress House, 23-28 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LW (map): register here (Eventbrite).