The new tax year, starting on 6 April (2016) will see record numbers of self‑employed workers, according to new data published by Co-operatives UK.
The Not Alone report tracks current levels of self-employment and the ways in which co-ops can help freelancers meet shared needs. Key findings are:
- At 15% of the workforce, government statistics show that 4.6 million people are now self-employed – the highest numbers in the UK since records began
- One in four people (27%) of employees in medium-sized firms in the UK would like to work in self-employment (22% in small firms, 14% in the public sector)
- The number of freelancers is likely to grow further over the next year, reflecting a significant change in the pattern of work in the economy
Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, said: “More and more people are turning to self-employment, whether out of choice or necessity. Our data shows this is likely to grow, with a significant number of people who are currently in employment interested in going freelance.
"Self-employment offers freedom and, by coming together in co-ops, freelancers can share the risks and responsibility.”
In line with this growth in self-employment, the report identifies examples of freelancers coming together to form co-operatives for shared services, from back-office support, debt management and contract advice to access to finance and sickness insurance and the shared use of equipment and access to workspace.
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There are a number of examples across the UK of co-ops of self-employed workers, from 50 music teachers forming a co-operative to market their services to schools, to interpreters laid off by Capita providing interpretation services in judicial courts through a co-op.
"Working as a private peripatetic music teacher can be a very isolating experience. The Music Co-operative enables our members to feel part of something, and to feel connected to other like-minded professionals." Janet Hodgson, Swindon Music Co-operative
But the report also identifies considerable scope for the growth of services in the UK, pointing to well-developed approaches overseas. In the USA, the Freelancers Union provides its 280,000 members with advice and insurance. In Belgium, SMart is a co-op offering invoicing and payments for 60,000 freelancer members. In France, new legislation allows self-employed workers to access the sickness pay and benefits of conventional employees through co-operatives.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: "This research shows how the world of work is rapidly changing and becoming more precarious.
"While some choose to be self-employed, many people are forced into it. The lack of stable income and poor job security often associated with self-employment can make it hard for workers to pay their bills and spend quality time with their families.
"That’s why 300,000 self-employed people have joined trade unions in the UK to get better rights at work. Many more could benefit from being part of co-ops and unions, and as a movement we need to reach out to them.”
Pat Conaty, co-author of the report and a freelancer himself, said: "Self‑employment is at a record level, but it is not yet at the high water mark. The pressure and the promise that lead people to go freelance will continue to swell the ranks of the self-employed over the coming year.
"Working alone can be aspirational, but it can also be lonely and anxious. There is an extraordinary opportunity for new co-operative solutions for self-employed people, giving them the freedom of freelancing with the muscle of mutuality."
The Not Alone report has been produced in partnership with Wales Co-operative Centre and Unity Trust Bank. The full report and a summary can be downloaded here.