When working freelance, it’s easy to think you are all on your own. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now more than ever, it is important that freelancers work together to secure a better deal. Here are five reasons why freelancers need to organize.
1. Precarious work is the new normal
While precise numbers are hard to come by, one thing is clear: The last three decades have seen more of us engaged in precarious work. According to the International Labour Organization, this means that more of us lack basic rights and protections at our workplace. We are also more likely to have lower wages, and lack access to benefits, paid leave, or pensions. Women, young people, immigrants, indigenous people, racialized people, disabled people, older people and young people are more likely to be among those doing precarious work. We often make less money and have more uncertainty in our working lives, both of which contribute to higher levels of stress and poor health.
We need to work together to demand higher wages and more good jobs across the board, as well as to work for more protections for those of us engaged in freelance and precarious work. A changing economy needs new legislation and new provisions to protect non-traditional workers, but companies and governments won’t give us these unless we push for them.
2. Break isolation
Most freelancers work alone. While there are undoubtedly perks to this arrangement—flexible schedules, the ability to work from your pyjamas—the social isolation of freelance work can take its toll. While co-workers might commiserate about the unjust actions of a boss by the office water cooler, freelancers often lack connections to people with whom they can bond over frustrating situations and difficult clients, or with whom they can bounce ideas off of or negotiate challenges. As a result, freelancers may feel they are alone in facing their problems. Freelancers need social interaction as much as anyone, and feeling lonely has consequences for both physical and emotional health.
Creating ways for freelancers to come together is necessary for freelancers to improve their working conditions. Whether in person or online, the creation of freelance support networks can provide both an important social outlet and the opportunity to discuss and problem solve around our collective issues.
3. Fight the “race to the bottom” for freelancers
Although it is typically used to describe the push for governments to lower their minimum wages or cut social and environmental legislation to attract businesses, the “race to the bottom” has become a feature of freelance life as well. As companies cut regular positions with guaranteed incomes, there are more and more freelancers struggling to make ends meet in any given field. In the creative fields there is already a tendency to undervalue our work, but increased competition pushes freelancers to cut rates below industry standards in order to attract clients. The result is a downward spiral in which freelancers need to charge ever lower rates to remain competitive, resulting in lower incomes, increased desperation to get more work, and a push to lower rates even further. This is compounded by freelancer websites like Fiverr, which encourages freelancers to work for as little as $5 per project.
While an unjust economy, not the actions of individual freelancers struggling to get by, is the cause of this situation, it is worsened by the fact that many freelancers work in isolation. Many people may not even be aware that they are charging less than their peers. We’re also probably less likely to undercut people we know, so organizing with other freelancers is an important part of protecting our industries. Working together we can communicate about and establish standard rates for different kinds of projects. While it is still up to individuals to avoid client pressure to reduce rates, having standard guidelines that we agree to collectively enforce gives us power and an important negotiating tool.
4. Get paid (and get paid on time)
One of the most common issues facing freelancers is the lack of recourse when facing difficulties with clients. Frequently this involves clients refusing to pay, or failing to pay on time. While traditional employees are subject to employment standards including regular pay days, freelancers have no such protections and as a result are often the last to get paid. Even when contracts are signed (and they often aren’t) individual freelancers typically lack effective mechanisms to demand timely payment.
Together we can innovate new ways of avoiding bad clients, protecting ourselves in the event of conflicts, and demanding timely payment. We can share stories of particularly troublesome clients with other freelancers, so that others know who to avoid. We can offer support, publicly and personally, to freelancers facing disputes with clients. A letter demanding payment from an organized group of hundreds of freelancers packs more punch—and more potential consequences for a difficult client—than one from an individual. Just knowing you have the support of other freelancers in the event something challenging arises can make freelance life feel less stressful and more secure.
5. We’re stronger together
There is no doubt that bringing freelancers together to fight for their rights is a difficult task—this is perhaps one reason that companies are opting to use freelancers, rather than employees, to fill needed roles. Traditional employees might form labour unions and negotiate collective agreements to gain greater power relative to their employers, and we all recognize that there is strength in numbers when trying to fight for a better deal. While individualized work is a feature of freelance work, if we want to keep the freedom and flexibility of freelancing while fighting for higher incomes, more protections and greater security, we need to work together.
When we raise our voices collectively, we have more sway over politicians and governments, and are more likely to achieve stronger regulations and protections for freelance workers. We can build networks to support one another through times of difficulty and celebrate the achievements of fellow freelancers. We can pool resources to access things like insurance or legal support that might be out of reach for us individually, but are cheaper or easier to access on larger scales. Clients may have a vested interest in keeping us separated and powerless, but together we can build our collective power and work for a better deal.
-By Canadian Freelance Union Member and Organizer Jane Kirby
Interested in innovative ways for freelancers to come together and organize? The Canadian Freelance Union is a member-driven community chapter of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union. It is working to provide new ways for freelancers in the communication sector to come together to improve their situation. It provides opportunities for freelancers to connect both in person and online; offers resources including access to insurance, press cards, and educational opportunities; and has a proven track record in providing successful grievance support for those facing conflicts with clients. The CFU is currently developing a rate card to establish basic compensation standards for freelancers in a variety of fields and a template contract which members can use to protect their rights. Want to know more? Check out the CFU’s website at canadianfreelanceunion.ca