The 9 to 5 is dead and the single contract dying. We live in an age where freelancing is growing, currently accounting for 47 per cent of workers worldwide. To complement this, entrepreneurship is fostered and encouraged. If you want to start a business in the UK, you’re in the right place. There are literally ‘hundreds of government grants available for small businesses’ to cover training and similar costs. Those that count as business grants are non-repayable. As well as this, Universal Credit support is offered to people who are self-employed to cover expenses before business booms, or at least starts to rumble. Self-employment is even woven into our popular culture. The Apprentice has so far run for 17 series on the BBC with last year’s episode attracting 4.6 million viewers — its biggest premiere since 2017.

Does Self-Employed Mean ‘Lazy’?

Despite being encouraged and mainstreamed, those who choose to start their own business by working freelance are stigmatized in various ways. At a radio networking event, I heard the comment, ‘ “Freelance” means “lazy” right?’ It’s a persistent stereotype that really disadvantages freelance workers. Laziness is low down on the ‘reasons to go freelance’ list. Some see a gap in the market they can only fill by freelancing. Others have a calling that simply diverges from the 9-5 structure: acting, theatre lighting, illustrating (à la former freelancer Shirley Hughes), and translation or interpreting. These are jobs where you cannot be continually employed behind a desk. Rather, a specific appointment must arise and require your services ‘on demand.’

Working independently of a contract or ‘going freelance’ is nothing new. Contrary to popular opinion, freelancers are not all Millennials in search of perpetual duvet days. Some of the English-speaking world’s treasured novelists began a career on this basis. Think Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Stephen King, to name but a few.

Admiration for people who want to be their own boss has grown during the past decade. Businesswoman Karren Brady was installed in the House of Lords in 2014. That year, it was somewhat unusual when Melanie Philips was announced as a ‘freelance journalist’ on BBC Question Time. Now, it’s anything but. Panel shows often feature freelancers and the recent I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here contestants have included podcaster Giovanna Fletcher and even YouTubers. During a dispute with HMRC, household name Lorraine Kelly was famously ruled freelancer (as opposed to contractor) by a judge in 2019. Despite the many TV references here, freelancers don’t spend all day on YouTube or watching boxsets, promise.

Aside from establishing itself within the pop culture psyche, freelancing has also been a lifeline during economic instability. Traditionally, a recession brings an increase in freelance suppliers. Following an HR headcount reduction, employers are attracted to cheaper providers who charge per hour upon completion and require no sick or holiday pay. Freelancing is also a way for employees to maintain a competitive CV during periods of work instability. After all, having one or two contracts on your resume is better than having to explain large gaps. The term ‘gig economy,’ referring to work undertaken by freelancers, gained popularity during the economic wasteland of 2008-2009.

Common Problems Affecting Freelancers

So, if freelance life is so culturally engrained, why the negative stereotypes? Why do we belittle those who take the leap of pursuing an entrepreneurial idea and undertake unpaid training in the process? Freelancers are expected to file all their taxes, complete endless paperwork, fill in constant applications and rubber-stamp the associated admin on their own unpaid time — on top of work commitments. And yet, clock hawks have the nerve to label that ‘lazy.’

It remains baffling just how differently freelancers are treated despite being established workers within the job market. Last year, cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cinderella, found out the show run had been cancelled via social media and by word of mouth. In any other setting, to terminate the services of an on-site, in-house worker in this way would rightly be called unprofessional.

During the pandemic, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme was set up days into the national lockdown.  But this kind of ‘safety-net’ support has been the exception rather than the rule. Freelancers’ work continues to lack security. Financial provisions tend to stop when the dreamy honeymoon ‘start-up’ period ends and reality sets in, bringing its inevitable setbacks and problems. In other words, support is withdrawn when you need it most.

One major problem of freelancing is clients who refuse to pay for work completed. Even when it is perfectly useable and the ‘middleman’ sees no problem with the finished product, freelancers are often at a (financial) loss when trying to find a solution to the dispute. The small claims court acts as a means of legally challenging unpaid fees. Unfortunately, ‘research suggests one in four small claims court users who win their case only receive part of the payment they were awarded, while 6% end up receiving nothing.’ What’s more, it costs the plaintiff (freelancer) money to even file a case, creating another financial setback. In turn, bankrupt defendants are generally not obliged to compensate a penny, which highlights a real trap. An almost-insolvent company will likely rely on new freelance workers who will be blissfully unaware of its woeful finances until it’s too late. Here a daunting Kafkaesque scenario emerges. Believing them to be reliable, the freelancer continues to work for a disreputable client at the expense of accepting work from other (paying) clients. Further up the business food chain, the average small business owner is owed £22,000 in late payments. That’s a lot of hours of hard work that go uncompensated.

On better days, when freelancers do receive their money, they still face disadvantages. In-house workers receive a regular payment once a month, remunerating the last four weeks’ work. In contrast, the freelancers’ ‘unpredictable earnings’ take far longer to process. It is not uncommon for a company to send out payments for September at the end of October. In this case, a job completed on September 1 would not be paid until October 31. That’s 60 days in arrears. It’s no wonder that so many freelancers have to work several jobs to make ends meet.

‘If you’re skint, freelancing is hard. Three unpaid invoices and you’re stuck.’

There are also other ways in which payments get delayed. If the 1st of the month falls on a weekend, the payment cannot be processed until the following working day. Payment for jobs carried out in the last three days of the month goes towards the remittance for the following month. These delays may sound tolerable, but they all add up when exacerbated by outgoings. 2019 research reveals that 25 per cent of all freelancers report being unable to afford ‘big ticket commitments such as weddings, holidays, and home improvements’ due to the freelance payment system.

In addition to the operational obstacles, there is the general stress of freelancing itself. Its very nature contradicts our modern outlook that strives for equal opportunities and mental health awareness. The prospect of being unable to pay one’s bills or maintain even low-paying work is enough to keep anyone up at night. One freelancer recounts: ‘I didn’t get paid very well for one role and freelance job insecurity is pretty standard.’

Freelancers are also more likely to be affected by payment errors when in-house staff are absent through illness and leave. An experienced freelance writer reports getting distracted from her actual job by: ‘chasing invoices when you have rent to pay. I think that is the main thing. Sometimes, I feel like you need some income in reserve. If you’re skint, freelancing is hard. Three unpaid invoices and you’re stuck.’ Chasing payments is an added anxiety when you already need to generate more leads, undertake current assignments, file paperwork and find that missing, crumpled receipt for taxation purposes.

When onboarding (registering) freelancers into their talent pool, clients assume their new suppliers have savings, a healthy income and even property. However, freelancing is an expensive business to get off the ground. Taking a prospective employer out for coffee or lunch; attending ticketed networking events for £30 or £40; and membership for organisations, guilds, Unions and societies associated with a chosen industry all absorb time and money.

When registering with a client, the freelancer must produce utility bills bearing their name for identification purposes. This really disadvantages renters or people living in multiple occupancy dwellings. They simply cannot register for work if the bill is in their flatmate’s name. The charge of a DBS check is another added cost. Then there is my ‘favourite’ pet peeve — printing costs. Freelancers are automatically expected to print their own timesheets on their own budget.

Travel is another minefield for freelancers as it’s not always covered. When factored in, journey time often lowers the day’s pay to below minimum wage! For a highly skilled appointment, how can that be? The hard truth is that ‘certain clients deliberately pay [freelancers] as little as possible,’ according to one experienced radio freelancer. Everything seems to indicate that freelancing is a luxury not everyone can afford. It’s an unlikely way out of poverty given that it favours the better-off.

Under Pressure …

The highly pressurised nature of the work — frequently issued at short notice — requires special attention.  Web-based systems are often used to source potential clients, leaving freelancers with a tiny window in which to accept work. To be clear, this is the difference between getting paid and missing out on a ‘gig.’ Once work is accepted, there are several stress-inducing requirements to fulfil to ensure payment. A military operation would sometimes be easier to accomplish.

For signing off each individual task, freelancers typically have 24 hours to submit a signed timesheet and proof of travel expenses to the finance department. Professionals who oversee freelancers’ assignments are often rushed when you most need them to concentrate on completing the paperwork accurately, adding to the stress. Any illegible writing can easily result in non-payment. Asking an impatient, rushed professional to rewrite something can be very tricky and uncomfortable.

When it comes to submitting the timesheet and travel receipts, the assigned 24-hour period is a nerve-racking 24 hours in which you must not experience a power cut or let a machine eat your ticket. (Don’t they seem to do that frequently?) Similar technical glitches affecting an entire office would never cost a worker a day’s earnings. In this instance, technology, rather than reducing various pressures, exacerbates them. It hardly comes as a shock that 32 per cent of freelancers no longer enjoy work as much as they used to. Everything leads to the conclusion that freelance work generates more stress and less time and money to earn money or de-stress.

Fighting the American Dream

How did we allow freelance work to become so detached from state guidelines that we effectively have workers who work more for less pay? Freelancers may have become ten-a-penny, but they are still entitled to get fairly reimbursed for the work that they do. Having to accept that freelancing carries less security should not entail turning a blind eye to upholding minimum wage and ‘accepted rate’ legislation.

Much of this nonsense stems from eroding the principles and progress made by the Labour Movement, as shown by the failure to challenge unpaid internships. Around the time of the 2008 recession, the UK imported the worst aspect of the US internship: unpaid labour. With it, the UK saw a wave of applicants performing specific tasks to specific deadlines without receiving anything tangible in return. Worst of all, jobless graduates were all too happy to do it and grateful when they got something for it — however illegally low.

Today’s younger workforce has notably lower expectations after being conditioned to be grateful for receiving crumbs. This ‘ask no questions’ culture has had a devastating effect on freelancers, partly explaining why so many of us do more (under more stress) for less pay.

Films such as In Pursuit of Happyness recklessly romanticise unpaid work. They fetishise living with increased obstacles instead of fighting for measures to mitigate them. On sober reflection, we’ve been seduced by the worst aspects of the American Dream. It’s high time we woke up.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.