Where do the bounds of social and environmental issues start and end? For some, it is addressing climate change. For others, it is reducing poverty. However, in some cases it can be more nuanced. What happens when a business engages freelancers on an ongoing basis and doesn’t pay them for their services under the guise it will enhance the freelancer’s profile or portfolio? Exploitative work in many economies is a serious and growing issue. This is especially a problem for freelancers, as many don’t understand their rights when working with businesses and can be taken advantage of when fresh out of University.
In fact, in the UK alone, the number of self-employed people or freelancers has increased from 3.3 million in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017, according to the ONS. As the freelance industry continues to grow, the unequal power dynamics between businesses and freelancers needs to change.
So, who should solve this issue?
Recently we started a discussion in the Planet B community about the role of business and government to improve society. In some cases, regulation can create an environment for social change and in other cases when government doesn’t act, business needs to step in.
I was fortunate enough to meet with Matt Dowling who has used his experience and business to advocate for people in the freelancer community. His experience shows the important interrelationship between businesses and government as well as how to use business to influence legislative change.
The Freelancer Activist
Matt always described himself as an entrepreneur, but not necessarily an activist. ‘I grew up in a really entrepreneurial family and the ‘normal’ thing for me was always to start my own thing, not work for a big company.’
Matt has done just that. What many would call brave, he sees as a normal and natural career. Starting as a freelancer in the creative industry as a photographer, he knew first hand the importance of hustling and finding employers that paid well and on time. ‘I had some freelancing experiences that included late or no payments, which made it almost impossible to make ends meet.’
In particular, a terrible freelancing experience ended up with a business refusing to pay him for his photography work of £11,000, leaving him almost homeless and in debt. Matt knew there was something wrong with the system and learnt that he wasn’t alone. After a story about his experience was published in a national paper, more freelancers came forward and shared the impact of the unequal distribution of power between freelancers and business. The relationship is largely driven by fear in a highly competitive market, with freelancers accepting poor work terms in order to get their foot in the door, which often does not eventuate in paid work.
Matt shared that a freelancer is effectively a sole trader in any industry who is providing a service to a business for a fee. The challenge with the creative industry (photography, fashion, hair and makeup, design, illustration etc) is that there has become a growing assumption that people will work for free in order to grow their exposure or experience.
From an interview by the Guardian with Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, he also discussed the view that ‘creatives providing free work need to be challenged. Working long hours for the experience or exposure forms part of a “culture of exploitation”, along with long-term unpaid internships. Unpaid work is damaging for diversity in the creative arts and a barrier to social mobility. It’s driving young talent out of these industries.’
Freelancer Club business
To address this issue, Matt started Freelancer Club in 2014 and now has over 30,000 users (freelancers and companies). Members receive access to online content, discounts, access to legal advice and a job board with companies who ensure there is only paid jobs posted online. It is a market leading platform that creates a community of freelancers who are being empowered to have better conversations with potential business clients and not feel threatened to take unpaid work. Their online platform allows freelancers to create a portfolio and connect with businesses who commit to providing paid work. But by far, the most powerful element of Freelancer Club is the community and tools to help freelancers thrive.
The Rise of the ‘No Free Work’ Movement
Freelancer Club’s website defines unpaid work as ‘any scenario where a business exploits an individual for commercial gain by not paying for labour or services that have been provided by that individual.
Note: There is a distinction between unpaid work and work experience, voluntary work and collaborative work.’
Also according to their website, ‘Unpaid work can have a damaging effect on the relationship between freelancers and their clients. It creates an environment where freelancers suspect their clients of trying to take advantage of them, rather than a positive working relationship. Unpaid work not only devalues the individual but impacts the creative industry resulting in a lack of diversity, a diluted talent pool and a poorer economy.’
This has led to the no free work movement which is a petition to show support to government and business that legislation and business practices need to change when engaging with freelancers.
It started with the hashtag,‘#nofreework to test the issue in the community. They did so through Twitter and wanted to hear from the freelancer community if it was a big issue and how they felt about it. They received a palpable energy from a highly engaged community of people who were driven by passion and anger to see change in the sector.
Once they validated that the issue was real, they put together a petition on change.org and got 1000 signatures very quickly. They then moved it off Change.org to Freelancer Club’s website along with a code of conduct that was co-produced with an NFP. This included defining unpaid work and asked freelancers and businesses not to post or receive unpaid work. To date they have more than 7000 people who have signed the petition and shared why it is important to them.
After the community was established and engaged, they tapped into the wider community and conducted an official survey of 1000 freelancers to understand the real impact of free work on their careers. This data helped to validate the issues in the market and became a key piece for media engagement. The team were written about in The Guardian, The Independent and various media outlets.
Having a media platform and a strong community, they were able to engage with policy makers to discuss changes in legislation. They organised round tables, facilitated by the Guardian with politicians. To date, the outcome has led to advanced conversations with Government and the Small Business Commissioners Office has officially backed the campaign. They are also in talks with MPs about the legislative proposal and, in the House of Commons, the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility Kelly Tolhurst MP, has publicly agreed to meet with Matt to discuss the issue further.
Matt spoke about how legislation is one important facet of driving change. However, the community also needs to create a cultural change where freelancers are empowered and businesses value their work. ‘We want to make offering or receiving free work in the freelance industry feel taboo and know when it is wrong.’
Understanding the Impact of Unpaid Work
To understand the impact of unpaid work on freelancers, the team conducted a survey of over 1000 freelancers, as stated above. The findings showed that unpaid work has a largely negative impact on freelancers, by asking a simple question ‘‘Has unpaid work been beneficial for your career?” Overwhelming the answer is no, with 73% saying there was a negative or no benefit.
They also estimated the annual loss per freelancer due to unpaid work is £5,394. What they found was a deeply troubling outcome on a freelancer’s business and mental health.
The Next Phase
Freelancer Club is growing from strength to strength and Matt is excited about the company’s next phase.
‘The next phase of Freelancer Club is really exciting, Companies will soon be able to have a space on the platform and engage the freelance community with their brand. This will enable companies to build relationships with freelancers that are fair and ethical. It will ultimately transform how the industry operates and recruits. It will no longer be a race to the bottom driven by powerful businesses, but a fair value exchange for services whereby the company is rewarded for it’s ethical practices.
‘We are creating a community ecosystem for freelancers and businesses to sit on the same platform. Our tech will be used to create, ethical and fair relationships in a new way that reimagines the recruitment process.Matt Dowling- CEO of Freelancer Club
‘We are facilitating a nurtured group of freelancers who are well taught and value themselves, with businesses who believe in paying for the service.’ Matt said.
The Steps for Starting a Movement
The way Matt approached creating the movement was looking at the problem through an ecosystem lens. He looked at the roles of individuals, business and government to drive short and long term change and took an orchestrator role. Being an orchestrator takes time and resources, however Matt and his team used their abilities to create a voice for thousands through 6 key steps:
- Test the market for passion and interest in the issue through social media
- When validated, they started a petition focused on the change to build an active community
- They engaged the community to collect data to create a compelling narrative.
- They used the data to engage media and spread the world
- Leveraged the media and community to engage with policy makers and Government
- Developed a platform for cultural change
If you know a freelancer or are a freelancer yourself, sign the petition here and show your support for fair and ethical payment in the industry. Click here to sign the petition and share with your friends today to start the movement in Australia!