Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

Copyright notice
Copyright held by Andrew Bibby. Use for commercial purposes prohibited without prior written permission from the copyright holder. This text has been placed here as a facility for Internet users and downloading is permitted for the purposes of private, non -commercial research. The text must not be modified, nor this copyright notice removed.



Organising self-employed workers

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in World of Work, 2003.

A self-employed IT consultant is at work in her office in Malmö in southern Sweden when the phone rings. As so often these days, it's a call centre agent at the other end, making use of the possibilities of the telephone to engage in some direct business-to-business marketing. Except this time there's a difference: it isn't another business which is initiating the call but rather a trade union.

The Swedish technical and clerical trade union Svenska Industritjänstemannaförbundet (SIF) is one of a growing number of trade unions keen to encourage the self-employed to consider union membership and not afraid to use modern marketing techniques in the process. The approach certainly seems to be working: SIF says that the conversion rate of cold calls into membership is around 5%-8%, making this a cost-effective way of recruiting new members into the union. It's a similar story in the Netherlands where FNV Bondgenoten has also been targeting the self-employed using direct mail and direct telephone techniques. According to the union, they are working their way through lists of 15,000 micro-businesses every six months and confidently expect to have 20% of the 130,000 or so self-employed workers in their sector unionised within ten years.

Some people may find all this a surprising activity for trade unions to be undertaking. Aren't unions there to offer collective representation for employees in their dealings with employers? Can they really be able to meet the interests of the self-employed, who after all are effectively small business-people engaged in running their own enterprises? Indeed, aren't unions sometimes quite hostile to the idea of self-employment?

Certainly unions continue to protest strongly when in their opinion unscrupulous employers try to avoid their responsibilities by encouraging their staff to establish themselves in various forms of pseudo-self-employment. This, unions say, means that workers miss out on social insurance provisions and are obliged to take responsibility for their own holiday pay, sickness benefits and pension entitlements. But unions also point out that they have a long history of recruiting the genuinely self-employed, particularly in sectors such as the media and entertainment. The International Federation of Journalists, for example, has reported that about 23% of the members of IFJ-affiliated unions run their own businesses as freelances, with the percentage as high as 50% in central and south America. Trade unions representing actors and musicians also have very strong freelance membership bases.

However, the last few years have seen generalist unions also reaching out to the self-employed. SIF in Sweden is a good example. It debated the issue of self-employed members in 1996 and after what has been described as a lively debate agreed to admit them to the union. Those who were in favour argued that this was a necessary and natural response to labour market developments, and in particular to the growth in the number of consultants and subcontractors. The new arrangement began in 1998, and since then approximately 2100 self-employed people have joined SIF.

Another union which is following the same path is the French managers' and professionals' organisation CFDT-Cadres which launched its Réseau Professionnels autonomes (network for independent professionals) in September 2002. The union says that this initiative, initially a three-year pilot, aims to demonstrate that unions have a role to play in representing individuals working in new ways. Among the target professions for the Network are independent consultants, graphical designers, software engineers and freelance journalists, well educated and qualified people which the union says exist at the margins of the employed workforce and whose rights need to be better protected. The Network (initially focused on Paris and its region) aims to offer members access to professional information and legal assistance as part of their membership subscription, and will also make other services such as social insurance and pensions available at additional cost.

It isn't only in Europe that unions are turning their attention to the issue of the self-employed. Gilbert Awinongya from ICU Ghana pointed out to a trade union meeting in Switzerland recently that as many as 80% of the workers in his country were in the informal economy. "The self-employed have different needs and we try to find out what these needs are. We don't tell them what the union has to offer, we ask them what they want us to do," he told his audience.

Unions which seek to meet the needs of the self-employed, however, have to ensure that they have the facilities in place to meet these workers' needs. Almost by definition this is likely to mean a shift from collective representation and bargaining to the servicing of individual needs, a transition which can put pressure on unions' staffing and administrative structures. Fortunately, new technology can come to the rescue. CFDT-Cadres, for example, is planning to focus its work with freelances around a new website,, seen as an important channel for service delivery to members.

The Danish union HK has a very similar strategy, and uses the website for what amounts almost to a 'digital trade union'. This website has a private section of the website offering specific advice and information, accessible only to HK members who have paid the monthly subscription (about $40). However, there is also an extensive public area of the website, which among other things includes the facility for any freelancer to advertise their services in a searchable database. Over 2,000 people have taken advantage of this. HK says that, as well as providing a valuable service, the database also enables it to identify potential new members.

The largest German union ver.di has combined a dedicated website with a call centre helpline service for its Mediafon operation, provided for its members in the media industry, including freelances. The call centre has the facility to transfer more specialised enquiries, for example about tax or legal matters, to advisers with appropriate expertise. One useful benefit for ver.di is that Mediafon provides something of an early warning system, flagging up new problems and concerns as they arise and enabling the union to respond quickly. Mediafon can be used by non-members as well as union members; ver.di says that about 15% of non-members using the service end up by joining.

As the example of Mediafon suggests, legal issues often loom large in the concerns raised by self-employed workers. SIF says that in Sweden it can offer its members up to ten hours a year of individual legal advice on areas such as business law and contract law. FNV Bondgenoten also says that contracts are a major issue for its self-employed members, and the union offers help in chasing unpaid and overdue invoices. Legal support for court hearings is provided free, though tax advice is charged for.

Other unions are trying to help their freelance members find business. In Australia, the professional engineers', scientists' and managers' union APESMA has created its own employment and recruitment agency, ETM Recruitment. APESMA already has a significant percentage of self-employed members and John Vines, the union's executive director, sees this as one way to encourage more to join. Eventually, he says, up to half of the union's membership could be self-employed.

Self-employed individuals are likely to have additional insurance needs to those working in traditional employment relationships, including typically sickness and ill-health protection, property insurance and professional indemnity cover. APESMA is one of many unions who are trying to use their size and bargaining muscle to negotiate discounted premiums for their members. SIF, which selects products from a number of approved insurers, can arrange policies to top up the limited state provision in Sweden in case of ill health.

Unions which choose to set out to attract self-employed members face the issue of how they are integrated into existing democratic and organisational structures. In particular, the relationship between self-employed and employee members - whose interests are likely to be much more focused on traditional collective bargaining processes, and who may indeed view their own pay standards and employment conditions as under threat from outsourcing - needs to be carefully managed. In the Netherlands, FNV Bondgenoten has chosen to resolve this issue by creating a new autonomous union for the self-employed. FNV Zelfstandige Bondgenoten, created in June 1999, has its own staff and legal statutes, though in practice it still works closely with its parent body. Eventually, however, the new union may become a full affiliate in its own right of the Dutch trade union federation FNV.

Perhaps the most radical - and some would say controversial - move has been that taken last year [2002] by the Norwegian finance service union Finansforbundet. Last summer it launched Rom as a separate non-profit organisation aiming to provide support and advice on work-related matters to a wide range of 'human capital' workers, including those running their own small businesses. Unlike Finansforbundet, Rom does not claim to be a trade union, and those who sign up to the services it offers (at a cost of about $38 a month) become subscribers rather than members. Rom offers legal advice, training and discounts on services such as insurance products. It is also building up a network of mentors and coaches, to provide one-to-one advice sessions on career issues.

The union hopes that Rom, which is designed to appeal to employees as well as the self-employed, will attract workers who would not consider joining a traditional trade union. There are, in fact, a million people in the workforce in Norway who are not union members, and Rom has the relatively modest target of persuading 12,000 of these to subscribe to the new service by the year 2005. New subscribers sign up over the internet at a dedicated website, making the service cost-effective and easy to manage.

For Rom subscribers, the finance union in Norway has deliberately chosen to remove the traditional collective responsibilities and obligations which trade union membership implies, to deliver instead a straightforward business service offering advice on employment and work-related issues. Rom in fact offers a simple 'customer' relationship based on the payment of the cash subscription. The union, which enjoys a high unionisation rate in its own sector, says that it does not believe Rom will threaten its own work, but will simply enable it to have a relationship with non-unionised workers.

Moves by trade unions to woo the self-employed can be seen as one attempt by unions to adjust to the changing world of work. New ways of working are coming in, and with them new contractual relationships in the workplace. For countries entering a post-industrial knowledge-based economy, traditional industrial relations may need to be extended into new areas. But there is also another reason why many unions understand that they need to develop their work: the harsh reality is that, if unions do not provide the employment-based advice and support services which it seems workers are increasingly requiring, it is quite possible that this market will be targeted by straightforward commercial operators. A service like Rom could, after all, be offered by anyone; what Finansforbundet in Norway has done is simply get in first.

Return to my home page