TUC-affiliated unions have self-employed members in a diverse range of occupations including actors, musicians, television technicians, tour guides, journalists, taxi drivers and construction workers. That’s why trade unions were at the forefront for arguing for a scheme to protect the incomes of the self-employed, as the Job Retention Scheme has protected the wages of employees. And it’s why we want to see the scheme extended now to protect those who still can’t get back to work.
Many self-employed people have seen work dry up completely or at the very least been severely affected. Others have been unable to work due to factors like having to shield.
As a result, large numbers of them will have been among the two million who have applied for a grant from the SEISS, with the scheme already paying out £3.1bn in support.
Unions are particularly pleased that the scheme was introduced earlier than initially expected. They also report that payments are made quickly to those who have applied.
However, there are still large numbers of self-employed workers excluded from the wage support schemes the government has put in place. For instance, two-thirds of 67% of UK film and TV industry freelancers have reported being unable to claim support from the SEISS while The Musicians’ Union estimates that almost 40% of its members do not fulfil all the requirements of the scheme.
Others who have lost out include newly self-employed workers, who have not filed a tax return in 2018/19. Government should be looking at how to use tax returns from 2019/20, alongside its significant investigatory powers to prevent fraud, to help this group.
A second group who have lost out are those who combine employed and self-employed work, such as the musician who provides school music tuition during the day and performs in the evening and weekends. Recent analysis has found that often gig economy work is undertaken by those who also have employed income.
We are deeply concerned that such vulnerable, typically low-paid workers are losing out on essential income.
Unions report that even the employed portion of their income is not secure because often it is conducted under a zero hours contract, with the employer under no obligation to continue offering work.
The rules also creates the potential for an anomalous and unjust situation where a self-employed worker, who has a total income of up to £100,000, including trading profits of £50,000, is eligible for support under the SEISS, while a low paid worker with just slightly more than half of their income from employed would not be eligible.
Many of those missing out are in genuine self-employment. But some of these problems stem from the increasingly fragmented nature of our labour market. People in low paid, insecure work, have been forced to turn to outside ‘gigs’ to top up an inadequate income. Too many businesses have substituted direct employment for the tax advantages to business of taking people off the books, or forced freelance workers into setting up a personal service company. And many casual workers paid through the PAYE system are finding that their employers don’t value them enough to furlough them.
Rebuilding secure employment must be a priority coming out of the crisis. But that won’t help those missing out now: we urge the government to lower the proportion of income derived from self-employed work necessary to qualify for the SEISS.
There are large parts of the economy that has little prospect of reopening in the near future. This includes substantial elements of the performing arts such as theatres, live music venues and occupations reliant on tourism.
Meanwhile, there has been no change to advice for those having to shield for health reasons.
The government has extended the Job Retention Scheme for employed workers until October, with a commitment that those furloughed will continue to receive at least 80 per cent of their normal wages.
It is therefore consistent and necessary to provide a similar extension for those self-employed workers who can show their ability to operate has been significantly affected by the pandemic. We need to protect their livelihoods now.
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