The United Kingdom

In 2019, the solo self-employment rate in the United Kingdom was approximately 12.8% of the working population, slightly above the European Union average (9.6%). Self-employed without employees accounted for about 9.4% and 12.8% of the working population of women and men respectively, and they were 85.4% of total self-employed. In the period 2007-2019, there was a sharp rise in the number of solo self-employed workers of approximately 41.5%. Such growth was mainly due to the increase of women migrants and late-career solo self-employed workers. The growth of the solo self-employed has involved both high-skilled and low-skilled professions. Estimations indicate that 7.2% of solo-self-employed can be classified as economically dependent self-employed (i.e. self-employed workers who work mainly for one client and do not decide their working hours), a share above the European Union average (5.0%).

In the UK, it is possible to perform a job according to three personal statuses: employee, self employed, and worker. According to the statutory definition, an employee is “an individual who has entered into or works under a contract of employment”. De facto, the difference between an employment contract and a contract for service (self-employment), as well as the main characteristics of the former, were elaborated by the courts on a casuistic base. Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides a definition of worker as an individual who has entered into or works under a contract of employment or any other contract whereby the individual undertakes to do or perform personally any work or service for another party to the contract whose status is not that of a client or customer or business undertaking. The distinction between self-employment and workers status is quite problematic. Self-employed people who are not running their own business would fall within the statutory definition of ‘worker’, while self-employed who are running their business are classified as independent contractors. To be included in the category of ‘workers’ provides a number of collective rights, such as the right to form and be associated with a union and the freedom to participate in collective actions, as well as important individual rights, such as a minimum wage, paid holidays, rest breaks, and limitations on working hours.

In the UK the collective representation of the solo self-employed has been traditionally tackled both by professional associations and trade unions, which are organised according to occupational sectors and in single companies. More recently, significant grassroots unions, informal groups, and specific projects have also emerged. During the first fieldwork, the activities organised by IPSE (association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed), the main organisation of independent professionals at national level, were followed. As far as trade unions are concerned, BECTU and Equity, two of the main unions focused on the creative industry, were included in the study, as well as the initiatives of PCS (museums), Unite (construction sector), and Community, which has recently promoted initiatives aimed at freelancers in co-working spaces. In addition, activities developed by two grassroots unions – the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – were investigated, mainly focusing on food delivery riders. During the first part of the fieldwork, other organisations were also contacted, such as: Coop-UK, the national network of the cooperative movement; FCSA, an umbrella organisation of agencies managing freelancers; Indycube, a network of co-working spaces, and NG27, an informal group created by art and history experts of the National Gallery.

In the second fieldwork, we conducted specific case studies focusing on three collective actors: IPSE, the association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed, with the aim to understand their strategies and activities; trade unions, continuing to collect data within Equity and Community, paying special attention to its collaboration with IndyCube; and IWGB, mainly focusing on specific campaigns for platform workers.

While conducting the first fieldwork in the UK, the researcher was hosted as visiting postdoctoral researcher at the King’s College University of London, while during the second fieldwork he was hosted at the Social Policy Research Centre, Middlesex University.