A radical new project to overhaul the rights of rapidly increasing numbers of freelancers in the UK has been kick-started with a membership drive for a new, all-inclusive trade union called Community.
Community is hoping to sign up more than 100,000 self-employed workers within the next five years as part of the project, which is the brainchild of the trade union and IndyCube, a coworking co-operative providing space mostly in Wales that has its first London location launching this week in Walthamstow.
Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy, a champion of the project, said she hoped it would act as a gateway for promoting trade union membership among the 15% of her north-east London constituency who are now self-employed.
Creasy, who won the new union the backing of the Co-operative party, called it “a new Marxist revolution, putting the means of production in the hands of the workers”.
She said: “If Labour is going to be a party for the 21st century, it has to show it can shape the 21st century, not just fear it. We can make self-employment work for people. The answer isn’t to say that this is taking away people’s power, it’s talking about new ways to give them power back, through solidarity and collective action.”
Around 200 freelancers joined Community in the first month of the scheme, most of them with direct connections to IndyCube offices in Wales. The ambition is huge, however, with a target of 100,000 members in five years.
IndyCube’s founder Mark Hooper said he believed the worst practices of worker exploitation were creeping back as self-employment rose.
“There is a fight on, there really is. Almost everyone at one point who has been self-employed was probably earning nothing or well below minimum wage,” he said. “Independent workers are asked if they want work to take on something for free first, and then they feel they have to do it. We’re going back to exploitative practices of 100 years ago, and people are so vulnerable. This is an old way of tackling a new problem.”
Most initial members are young creative freelancers or small businesses owners, but in the medium term, Hooper said the project’s ambition was to attract anyone self-employed, from hairdressers to electricians and taxi drivers.
To tackle late payments, the trade union membership will include a factoring service, normally only available to large corporations, for a smaller-than-average fee of 1.4%, which means freelancers are guaranteed every invoice will be paid on time.
Hooper said small businesses and freelancers in the UK were currently £26bn out of pocket because of late payments. R3, the insolvency trade body, says that is the primary or major cause for almost a quarter of bankruptcies in the last 12 months.
“We could end late payments, we have got the solution to do it. If everyone self-employed joined today, £26bn comes back into the UK economy, it’s that simple,” Hooper said.