Freelance workers feel they have been forgotten, after hearing about the latest financial measures announced by the UK government on Friday to bolster the economy against the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced increased benefits for the self-employed, but did not guarantee their wages.
“I was absolutely devastated,” said Chloe Hall, a freelance marketing consultant based in Newcastle upon Tyne. “We work just as hard, but freelancers are always sort of at the bottom of the pile.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, there are five million self-employed people in the UK, who make up 15% of the labour market.
Ms Hall told the BBC she had cancelled subscription services and even her business bank account in a bid to reduce costs, but without work, she didn’t know how she would pay her bills.
“Without the mortgage, my essential bills come to £948 a month,” she said. “£94.25 a week [the Universal Credit payment] – how is that going to pay anybody’s bills?”
The measures announced by the Chancellor to help small businesses and the self-employed included:
- VAT payments by companies deferred until the end of June
- Interest free cash grants to small businesses
- Self-assessment income tax payments for July 2020 deferred for six months
- Increase in standard Universal Credit of £20 a week, with the same rise for those still on the working tax credit scheme
- Nearly £1bn for those struggling to pay rent, through increases in housing benefit and Universal Credit
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents gig economy workers, has announced that it is suing the government over its failure to protect the wages and jobs of millions of workers during the pandemic, as well as its failure to ensure the health and safety of those still employed through proper sick pay.
IWGB General Secretary Dr Jason Moyer-Lee said: “No one wants to be litigating right now. We all have extremely pressing things to be getting on with, but we also can’t stand by and watch our members being driven into financial destitution because the government has simply forgotten about them.
“The low paid precarious workers must have the means to follow public health advice and continue to pay their bills and put food on the table. Right now, they don’t.”
The government has said there will be further measures to help self-employed people.
Rishi Sunak told the Commons: “We absolutely understand the situation… and are determined to find a way to support them”.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Steven Barclay – added that the self-employed had not been forgotten by ministers.
He said: “Further help is indeed coming – but we have to make sure we get this right.”
Deliveroo rider Greg Howard, says that gig economy delivery drivers are extremely worried about their incomes, and says that the perception that the takeaway industry is booming is false.
“People are quite concerned as we’ve had news that quite a few of the restaurants that are integral for our everyday work are closing, despite being allowed to stay open for takeaways,” he said.
Mr Howard, who is based in Nottingham, which is one of the UK’s busiest zones for deliveries, said that typically, he would make 25-30 deliveries a day, working five or six days a week on 10-hour-long shifts, and his take-home pay would be about £500 a week.
Now, he makes 10-15 deliveries a day, working shifts lasting up to 14 hours, because fewer restaurants are open, but the same number of couriers are still on the roads.
“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to make ends meet for myself and my family. £94.25 a week is not enough for us.”
Diane Evans, based in Brentwood, Essex, has been a freelance childminder for 16 years. As a single parent with two children, she provides childcare services from her home, but with schools closing, her work has been severely affected.
“A lot of us feel that we’re considered to be babysitters by the government and we get left behind, almost not taken seriously for our jobs,” she said.
Ms Evans said that at the minimum, she would require double the amount of the weekly Universal Credit payment to make ends meet, and that childminders could be forced to stay closed until the new school year in September.
“We can’t go get another job stacking shelves in the supermarket, for example, because we can’t leave our children at home on their own. We’re stuck and we’re not getting any support from the government.”
Julia Martin is a professional singer based in Brigg, North Lincolnshire, specialising in tributes to artists like Celion Dion and Dame Shirley Bassey.
Her son is disabled and needs a warm home at all times, which means her utility bills typically cost about £300 a month. Even with mortgage payments frozen, she won’t be able to get by.
“My disappointment was palpable when I realised we were yet again to be overlooked and effectively thrown under the bus to fend for ourselves,” she said.
“For over 20 years I and many others in a similar occupation have contributed to the economy of the UK. I have never claimed benefits and I pay my taxes, yet through no fault of my own I have had all my performances terminated for a minimum of two months.”
The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) has launched a petition and written to the prime minister along with with numerous other industry bodies, calling on the government to implement a temporary income protection fund specifically for the self-employed.
According to the IPSE, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, self-employed people contributed £305bn to the British economy.
IPSE’s policy director Andy Chamberlain says he understands the government’s hesitation over self-employed people, because it is more difficult to confirm how much they are actually earning month to month.
But he does think it is possible to put a similar wage guarantee in place as has been offered to British employers.
“We can look at past earnings as evidenced by tax returns to make a reasonable projection and there are some ideas which are being formulated around software which could capture banking data and build projections off that as well,” he said.
“While we’re grateful to the government for the measures it has unveiled so far, we still believe that much more needs to be done to support the UK’s five million self-employed people.”