Freelancing’s greatest risk is its narrative

Too many companies use the risk of freelancing as a veil to hide poor payment cultures behind

I got into a fight earlier this week on Twitter with the CEO of a company about the risks of freelancing. He replied to a tweet of mine about late payments saying, “But that’s the risk of going into business yourself? Have a job be protected by employment law. Go freelance but take business risk of not being paid or not getting work. Can’t have your cake and eat it.”

I tried to explain to him that he was conflating the issue of late payments with the risk of not being able to get work. Granted this was over Twitter, so the “conversation” went nowhere and I ended up blocking him. Normally, I’d leave that sort of exchange there, but the interaction got me thinking about this idea of freelancing being risky and what do we actually mean when we say that. 

Now, of course, working for yourself carries substantial risks. I say this over and over but it’s worth repeating: freelancing isn’t for everyone, nor is it a silver bullet for workplace dissatisfaction. As a freelancer, you face the prospect of not being able to get work, you have to deal with a fluctuating income, as well as a lack of employee benefits. But the risk of not getting paid on time, while very real, should not be a fact of life that freelancers just accept as par for the course. Nor should it be one that business leaders perpetuate. This is not a case of having your cake and eating it, it’s a case of fair treatment.

To start with, the security of employment is relative. In certain industries, the media being one of them, a full-time job simply no longer offers the security it once did. In 2019 alone, there were 7,800 job losses in the media. I went freelance in 2017 as a result of redundancy and have felt more secure working for myself than I ever did when I was in-house. 

The issue is not that self-employment is inherently riskier compared to a staff job, it’s that companies are able to get away with creating a hostile environment for freelancers. They can do this because there aren’t sufficient laws protecting the self-employed, there’s a power imbalance between companies and contractors, and there’s a lack of transparency between freelancers themselves. 

As a result, companies use the fact that freelancing is perceived as risky as a veil to hide their poor payment culture behind. What we’re left with is a narrative that because freelancing is insecure, we can’t question or seek to change the poor conditions. What we’ve in effect saying here is that because people choose to pursue a way of working that’s different from traditional career paths, that’s carte blanche to abuse power. 

Most concerning is who leads this narrative. The Twitter conversation I had with that CEO is not the first time I’ve had a business decision-maker respond in that way to my #FairPayForFreelancers campaign. But the line “this is just how business works,” is just not good enough anymore. In the UK, 15% of the workforce is self-employed and contributes  £275 billion to the UK economy and drives the country’s job growth. This is a vital sector of the workforce that deserves better working conditions.

The great thing about narratives, however, is that they can be changed. Misconceptions around freelancing pervade in part because we’re an inherently disparate group. Freelancers can find strength in numbers by banding together. Join a community of freelancers, share rates and stories, sign the #FairPayForFreelancers campaign, join a union or a grassroots collective. Whatever feels appropriate for your personal circumstances, find a way to take back control of the narrative. I might be done fighting with people on Twitter, but I’m far from done fighting for the fair treatment of freelance workers.