Coronavirus does not discriminate based on your contract – neither should the government

Every day, freelancers are waiting for specific support from the government, and every day they are being disappointed.

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The economic support package announced by the Chancellor last Friday to help workers through the Covid-19 pandemic was both unprecedented and underwhelming.

The level of support he provided to employees is unlike anything we have seen in living memory and is appropriate to the scale of the crisis, described by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as “the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in a century”.

This health emergency is also an economic catastrophe for millions of workers risking an income collapse that poses a risk as significant as the virus itself.

When it comes to health or equality, we would not accept an approach that excluded around five million people, yet the gaping holes in the government’s economic plan threatens to do just that, leaving many families and entire sectors facing this pandemic alone.

I am talking about those who are self-employed or freelance, and the sectors that rely on such workers, who had precious little to thank the Chancellor Rishi Sunak for last Friday and feel betrayed and abandoned by their government.

At the outset of the crisis, our union Prospect – and our Bectu sector, which represents more than 20,000 freelancers in the broadcasting and the entertainment sectors – started to hear from members fearing for their livelihoods.

Within a week, all live events for the foreseeable future had been called off. Theatres were shut, heritage institutions such as galleries and museums had closed and the incomes of many thousands had completely dried up.

Last week, virtually every day brought a fresh announcement as to what the government was going to do to help the many thousands losing their jobs, suffering a pay cut or seeing business volumes disappear.

Every day, freelancers watched those announcements hoping for some specific good news, and every day they were disappointed.

Commitments to delay the introduction of the new IR35 tax regulations and to push back the deadline for self-assessment tax returns were welcome, but fell far short of the game-changing support offered to employees.

It’s no secret that the mechanisms in place to help employees are much easier to utilise than those that might be available for the self-employed. How, for example, do you work out someone’s average income? Do you use tax returns? If you can work out an average income, is that a fair income for someone whose income is highly seasonal?

In live events, for example, most of a person’s income is earned over spring-autumn, with winter lying fallow. Is it fair to them if you average out their yearly pay, knowing that, with luck, when this crisis over, they could be back in a fallow period and still unable to earn? Even if you can work out what the fair amount is for the government to support, how do you pay it to them?

All these are questions need to be answered and fast, but more urgent than a completely fair mechanism is a commitment for some form of payment to be made now, so bills can be paid and food bought. Most importantly, a commitment to support them with a deadline to deliver means some restoration of confidence and some ability to plan.

A good start would be for Sunak to pledge to work with unions, as he did last week on other matters, to work out a fair, equitable and practical solution to this transactional problem. It is where issues are thorny and complex that unions come into our own. We are used to negotiating in situations where there are trade-offs and where one size most definitely does not fit all.

We have called for the same protection that applies to employees of 80 per cent income replacement to be extended to the self-employed – with a slightly higher cap to reflect the fact that there is no prospect of employers topping up wages and no guarantee of an immediate return to work when the crisis is over.

The virus does not discriminate based on what kind of contract you have, and we will work with anyone and everyone over the coming months to ensure that we leave no worker to face this challenge alone.

Mike Clancy is general secretary of Prospect

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