Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Guardian article: Freelancers unite to gain benefits

The Guardian has published my article on how freelancers are using old-fashioned methods of mutual support to solve modern problems of insecure independent employment.
The article highlights two examples, Broodfonds in the Netherlands and SMart in Belgium. Both pool their members' resources to offer services such as sickness pay, invoice chasing, and financial support.
Mutual societies were popular in the early decades of the industrial revolution, when workers were left to fend for themselves, with few protections or benefits. Freelancers today find themselves in a similar position. A revival of mutual methods of protection is an important part of the freelancers' rights movement.
The full article is here: http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/jan/14/freelance-payment-sickness-leave

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

GroupEstate - new startup, new mission

I've recently launched a new business. GroupEstate helps groups of friends and family combine their resources to buy a shared property. Our mission is to create a scalable solution for affordable home ownership. Everyone should be able to own at least part of their own home, and GroupEstate provides the tools and information to enable exactly that.
Visit www.groupestate.com to learn more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Can't pay? Don't play: talk at re:publica conference 2014

Joel Dullroy's presentation at re:publica conference 2014 in Berlin.

Reactions are emerging to online economic disparity. Cooperatively-run startups and new forms of the mutual society may be an answer to exploitative digital business models. Social surges like the freelancers’ rights movement are building real world political pressure. Companies that don’t pay will be told they can’t be in business.

Today’s social crisis of inequality has a digital corollary - online businesses getting rich off the back of poorly paid precarious workers. And just as society will search for radical rebalancing solutions, so too will digital businesses be challenged by reactions to online economic disparity.

New models of online economic participation are emerging, some that involve their workers and users as co-owners - a remixing of the concept of the cooperative. Digital co-ops could be the answer to startups run by armies of unpaid interns, or digital workers slaving on micro-tasks for micro-money.

Old concepts of collective support - such as mutual benefit societies and credit societies - are resurfacing, enhanced by innovations like crowdfunding. With governments worldwide in austerity-driven retreat, self-built support networks may be the most viable form of social security.

Such nascent reactions are dovetailing with other social surges such as the freelancers’ rights movement, which is building real world political pressure. In Europe, the freelancers’ movement will run its first major mobilization campaign ahead of the EU elections in May. In the US, the Freelancers Union is calling for an explosion of cooperatives and new mutual societies.

Businesses may find themselves under pressure from rival worker- and user-owned cooperative startups. They will also face campaigns to meet ethical hiring and contracting standards, such as a “freelance friendly” accreditation scheme. Companies relying on unpaid workers will be educated that if they cannot afford to pay staff, they cannot be in business.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Is freelancing a choice? It shouldn’t matter

First published at freelancersmovement.org

By Joel Dullroy

If you're one of Europe's nine million freelancers, May Day isn't a celebration of anything at all. While traditional employees mark International Workers’ Day, freelancers like us will remain glued to our laptops finishing jobs for clients who aren't obliged to give us a paid day off.

There are some who believe freelancers don't deserve any sympathy for this situation. After all, don't freelancers choose to work for themselves? Aren't they paid a premium hourly rate that should compensate for a lack of benefits like holidays, health insurance, and pension contributions?

While it's true that some freelancers dance into their independent careers, there are also many of us who stumble from one project to the next. And while a few high-end consultants can add zeroes to their day rates, a lot of us have bare bank accounts and feel a bit queasy when we hear the word "retirement".

We put on a smile when asked if we like working for ourselves, because it's true that we're happy to have escaped the drudgery of office hierarchy. But it seems that to admit enjoyment of personal liberty disallows us from mentioning any of the downsides.

Those of us who let the smile slip and mumble about freelancers' struggles are liable to be told to "go and get a job". But that retort shows an ignorance of today's employment market, in which many jobs freelancers might be able to do don't exist. They're either occupied, or outsourced to freelancers.

The "go and get a job" argument fails to acknowledge the causes of the freelancing boom, which is fuelled just as much by corporate pressure to outsource, and neoliberal reforms to individualise employment, as it is by a personal desire for freedom.

Such arguments are also a way to avoid a big and scary conversations about the looming social problems created by the growth of independent work, combined with a shrinking state. It places the blame and responsibility solely on the shoulders of individuals, rather than questioning the reliability of social structures that haven't kept pace with ideological and technological change. Wait until automation sweeps through high-end professions, and we'll see who is still sniping "go and get a job."

Is it a choice? It shouldn't matter

This notion of choice haunts all discussions of freelance working conditions.

Trade unionists think freelancers have no choice at all - we're either kidding ourselves, or we're forced into freelancing by sneaky bosses. In either case, they want us all corralled back into the factories.

High-end contractors think we are all doing just fine and need no support, certainly not from governments, which will only impose restrictions on our activities. Better to struggle without help than risk regulation, they tut from their comfortable positions.

But both arguments ring hollow for most freelancers. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. We've got some personal agency, but we're also affected by the corporate, political and technological maneuvers of recent decades. Some elements of freelancing are great, and at other times we need a safety net.

Whether freelancers choose their situation shouldn't matter. Rather than focusing on choice, let's re-imagine our social and employment structures to reflect the realities of today's workforce.

Let's provide support to those who need and want it, regardless of whether they're traditional workers or freelancers.

Let’s get rid of obstructionist bureaucracy that places burdens on freelancers. After all, if someone chooses freelancing, bureaucracy shouldn’t get in their way, and if they don’t choose it, then such obstruction is just making life more difficult for someone with enough problems already.

As for us freelancers, let’s join together to demand policy changes where needed, and create our own solutions when possible.

Let's join campaigns like the European Freelancers' Movement, which is pushing a set of five simple demands on politicians in Brussels. Let's join associations and organizations attempting to create a collective front, like the VGSD in Germany and the PCG in the UK.

Let's start small cooperatives to give each other support and find work. Let's build new mutual societies to provide a safety net in down times, and collective services where governments fail us.

And as for public holidays like May Day, well, let’s give ourselves the day off.

Joel Dullroy is the editor of the e-book Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement. He is also campaign manager of the European Freelancers’ Movement: http://www.freelancers-europe.org.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Why it’s time for freelancers to pipe up and get organised

My guest blog post for the RSA. First published April 2, 2014.

Of all the trends sweeping the world of work – start-up culture, flexible workspace, millennial angst – the growth in freelancing has the greatest potential for impact and reaction. That’s because while other workplace trends affect how we work, freelancing also affects how we live.
Problems that stop at the office door for traditional workers follow freelancers home. Matters which are remotely resolved for workers – benefits, securities, pensions – independents must care for alone, if at all.

Until recently, this has been a manageable trade-off for increased personal flexibility. Like roaming medieval knights, freelancers were scarce, highly skilled, well paid and self-selecting. But in recent years the ranks of independent workers have swelled. Freelancing has become part of the everyday vernacular, along with start-up, online, recession and cutbacks.

The rapid growth in freelancing has implications for both individuals and society. As Steven Toft highlighted in his recent post for the RSA, while the number of Britain’s self-employed has grown by almost half a million since 2008, more than half of them earn 12,000 GBP a year or less, which is almost the minimum wage. Exactly what will happen to this mass of lowly paid and unprotected freelancers in ill fortune and old age remains a social experiment waiting to run.

At the same time, as the RSA’s Benedict Dellot observed, the growing number of freelancers gives this demographic a potential political opportunity. He calculated that Britain’s self-employed will overtake the number of public sector employees by 2017/18. Though it has not yet been noticed by the governing class, this rising opportunity for political agency has not gone unnoticed by freelancers.

The reaction begins: freelancers form a movement

This year may be remembered as the start of a new chapter in employment politics. Across Europe, freelancers are getting organized into a cohesive movement, and are making demands of governments and employers.

At the fore of this movement is the Freelancers Europe campaign, which is rallying independent workers to sign a five-point manifesto ahead of the European Parliament elections. The campaign – operated mostly online, with events and outreach in coworking spaces – aims to collect a modest 10,000 supporters in its initial outing. There are plans for future larger actions that will demonstrate the size and strength of Europe’s freelancing class, which is estimated to be almost 9 million strong.

The Freelancers Europe campaign is the result of cooperation between a coalition of national organizations representing independents in EU countries. These national freelancers associations have been working quietly for years to recruit members and create political lobbying skills. Some – such as the PCG in the UK, and the PZO in the Netherlands – have existed for more than a decade, but have gained new impetus with the growth of the demographic.

Freelance organizing took a step forward in 2010, when several national organizations joined together to create the European Forum of Independent Professionals (EFIP), a regional meet-up. EFIP has since commissioned some of the only available research into the size and needs of the freelancing demographic, and it instigated the Freelancers Europe campaign, with its manifesto of actionable demands.

The freelancers manifesto: five demands from independent workers

The freelancers manifesto has five simple points. It asks EU authorities to recognise freelancers as a legitimate employment and business category – a simple ask, but something overlooked by many bureaucrats. Once recognised, freelancers are seeking access to government services and funding, from which they are often excluded.

Better statistics are a key demand; the 9 million figure is based on estimates, as official data about the demographic are patchy at best. Freelancers’ organizations are requesting to be consulted by governments when drafting policy. And finally, businesses are targeted with a demand to treat freelancers fairly, with better contracts and condition.

The manifesto makes no mention of hard policies, such as regulation, taxation and social security. That’s because most such daily concerns are set at a national level, with limited EU influence. Nevertheless, the campaign and its manifesto marks the first time independent workers have coordinated to advance a set of collective demands. Across Europe, the freelancers’ movement has begun.

A union of independents?

The lead actor of the freelancers’ movement globally is the Freelancers Union, which launched in New York in 2003. Not an official union, it is a non-profit organization with over 225,000 members who sign up online, attracted by sharp graphic design styled on retro propaganda art.

In just over a decade, the Freelancers Union has set up its own health insurance company and retirement savings plan, and opened a health care centre and a coworking space for its members. This focus on services has attracted some criticism from the more politically minded, to which the organization’s founder, the entrepreneurial Sara Horowitz, responds that she is meeting the most immediate concerns of her members.

Horowitz expresses a vision for “new mutualism”, meaning a revival of member-run support organizations such as mutual societies and cooperative businesses. Rather than wait for governments to respond, she calls on freelancers to go ahead and build their own solutions.

Traditional trade unions slow off the mark

This flurry of freelancer activism has caught off guard the traditional guardians of the working class, the trade unions. At a conference in Berlin in March, union representatives from around the world discussed how to address independent workers. Most expressed a desire to simply subsume freelancers back into the ranks of the traditional workforce.

As long as unions continue to misread freelancers as wayward workers, they will fail to have any relevance for this demographic. Although they may have deep concerns about their finances, their social safety net and their prospects in old age, survey after survey finds the majority of freelancers have no desire to return to a company job.

An independent freelancers’ movement that can articulate a balanced vision of personal freedoms, political agency, government support and mutually-created social protections is more likely to appeal to today’s independent worker. 

Read more about the Freelancers Europe campaign and manifesto here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How digital workers are getting organized

A guest post published on CUNY’s Digital Labor Working Group blog.

By Joel Dullroy

Digital workers probably don’t call themselves freelancers. Indeed, they presently are unlikely identify with any worker category at all. Whatever name they use to describe their condition – independent worker, contractor, micro entrepreneur – they nevertheless exist in a grey zone in which long-fought-for rights and protections do not apply. The freelancing grey zone has a physical corollary: special economic zones, or free trade zones, those areas where companies operate in a legal no-man’s-land. And like the freelancing workforce, these zones were once exceptional, but have become ubiquitous.

Ascertaining the real size of the freelancing workforce is a difficult task. Few national statistical agencies adequately categorize independent workers. At worst they are not counted at all; at best they are lumped together with other self-employed workers such as storekeepers, who have similar but not identical conditions. We have compared the existing data on freelance workers from the United States and Europe, and present our results in our new e-book, Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement (see page 29-30). The various studies show that between four and 10 per cent of the European workforce is now independent or self-employed. In the United States, studies place the number of freelancers anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of the workforce. The vast discrepancy is cause for concern, for if this demographic is not properly counted, how can effective policy ever be implemented to meet its concerns?

Indeed properly counting freelancers is one of the simple starting demands of the nascent freelancers’ rights movement, a growing coalition of organizations around the world representing the independent workforce. In the U.S., the foremost proponent of the movement is the Freelancers Union. In European countries organizations such as the PCG in the United Kingdom, the PZO in the Netherlands, Germany’s VGSD and Italy’s ACTA are fighting on behalf of freelancers. These groups have different constituencies, ideologies, approaches and demands, but they are united in their attempt to shape an atomized landscape of disjointed individuals into a cohesive political front with clout. As the size of the freelancing workforce grows, so to does their claim for a voice in politics and society.

The freelancers’ rights movement faces challenges, not the least being to convince freelancers themselves to take part. But if the various organizations can hold together, form a unified voice, create effective campaigning machinery and rally independent workers, they stand a chance of creating a new form of worker organization, one that utilizes the very tools of digital labor to its own advantage.

We provide an overview of the freelancers’ rights movement, its various participating bodies, and a political history of the rise of the freelancing class in our new e-book, which can be downloaded as a PDF or in Kindle format for free from www.freelancersmovement.org.

Joel Dullroy is a journalist and freelance activist in Berlin. He is author of the book Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The anatomy of a campaign website

Over the past few months, a group of dedicated freelance activists in Berlin have been strategizing about how to get independent workers across Europe to take part in our developing movement. Our mission is to create a united European front for the various existing freelance organizations ahead of the European Parliamentary elections in May 2014. We want to show politicians in Brussels that independent workers are a growing demographic, one that isn’t atomized and powerless any longer.

But how best to rally freelancers, when we have no budget? We decided to use the simplest and most financially effective tool at our disposal – an online campaign, spread via social media. The secret weapon – the thing that will push our message above all the other social and environmental campaigns clamoring for attention online – will be coworking spaces, which are already existing community gathering points which can become embassies the of the freelancers’ movement. With a poster in every coworking space, and a community manager informed about our efforts, the campaign will step beyond the digital realm and become a physical reality.

We set to work studying existing online campaigns to get an understanding of current practice, and steal the best elements.

Follow the link to read what we discovered: http://freelancersmovement.org/the-anatomy-of-a-campaign-website/

Monday, December 09, 2013

My book: Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers' Rights Movement

The preview edition of Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights Movement is now available for download. This preview edition includes five chapters. Further chapters will be released in future editions of the book.



Around the world, independent workers are getting organized. No longer an ignorable minority in society, freelancers are waking up to the potential power within their growing number. They are combining through online communities, campaign groups, incorporated associations and even proto-unions to exert influence over their conditions.

Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers Rights Movement, by Joel Dullroy and Anna Cashman, introduces the concept of the collective empowerment of freelancers. The book provides an overview of the existing elements of the freelancers’ movement, with comparisons of the organizations and campaigns currently at work and the goals they are striving to achieve. It lays out the conditions which have led to the growth of the freelancing workforce to show how the current situation has been purposefully created through political decisions, and can therefore be altered and improved by the same means.

With a foundational text in place, critical discussions on the topic of independent worker rights can continue to develop, in symbiosis with the freelancers’ movement itself.


This preview edition includes five complete chapters:

  • Introducing the Freelancers’ Movement
  • How Many? Counting Freelancers
  • Pushed: How Politics and Ideology Created the Freelancing Grey Zone
  • The Reaction Begins: How Freelancers are Getting Organized
  • Case Study: Freelancers Union





The book is available as a free PDF download. Supporters may also select to pay a donation to help the authors complete their research and writing.

Download the book from this website: http://www.freelancersmovement.org

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Time for a Berlin Living Wage

The cost of living in the German capital is rising fast. Property owners are taking advantage of Berlin's popularity by pushing up rents. Public transport costs have risen to among the most expensive in Europe. Yet wages have hardly changed at all, particularly for those at the bottom of the employment market.
It's time that Berlin businesses were encouraged to start paying a Living Wage. This is an hourly rate calculated to reflect the real cost of living in a city.
Other cities already have a living wage in place. In London, the Living Wage Foundation independently calculates a fair hourly rate, over and above the national minimum wage. The current minimum wage in the UK is 6.31 GBP, while the London Living Wage is 8.80 GBP.
The foundation then encourages businesses to pay the Living Wage, and rewards those that do by giving them accreditation and stickers to place on their shopfronts. You often see these stickers on cafes in central London, and companies advertise jobs as being Living Wage compliant.
This voluntary system has been very effective at encouraging a decent rate of pay in the service industry. It has also gained political support from all parties, and is championed by London's mayor and business leaders.

A Berlin Living Wage

Establishing a Berlin Living Wage would not be a difficult task. It would involve just a few inspired individuals, calculating a rate, promoting the idea to business and government, and getting public attention. The groundwork could be laid within a couple of weeks.
It could be supported by other social movements, such as the existing freelancers' movement in Germany, as well as the many small interns' rights campaigns underway in the city.

What about Germany's impending minimum wage?

The idea of introducing a nationwide minimum wage was debated in the recent federal election, but no policy is yet prepared, and there's no guarantee that it will come into effect. The possible introduction of a minimum wage is no reason to delay implementing a Berlin Living Wage.
Both a minimum wage and living wage can operate simultaneously. The costs of living in the inner city are often higher than the general cost of living nationally, so the Living Wage usually needs to be slightly higher.

Next Steps

I will attend the European Conference on Living Wages, which takes place in Berlin on November 25 and 26. This conference will address the idea of a living wage in Asian countries, but oddly does not include any topics about introducing the concept locally in the very city in which the event takes place. We can bring the idea forward as attendees.

Anyone interested in joining me at the conference, or in forming a working group to plan for the creation of the Berlin Living Wage can contact me: @joeldullroy, or joeldullroy at gmail.com.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Building a fair freelancers' platform

Originally posted on the Freelancers' Movement blog:

The economy of the internet is dominated by privately-owned portals which view their community of users as customers, content creators, data providers, and assets to profit from. Yet a different model of economic participation is possible, one in which the user is not a passive object, but an active beneficiary in the operation of online platforms. Membership could become a form of partial ownership, users could become stakeholders deciding on form and function.

For an illustrative example, the users of an online apartment rental platform could collectively own such a website, earning money not just with their transactions but also through their small shareholding. Or freelance workers who source jobs through crowdsourcing websites could profit from the growth and operation of such platforms as co-operative owners, rather than be simply exploited as disempowered users.

Applying the concepts of the co-operative business model to online platforms, especially those in the collaborative consumption industry, could result in a radical reshaping of digital citizenship and society through empowerment, inclusion and compensation. But the development of such systems requires a detailed analysis of the economic, legal and technical hurdles that stand in the way.

To explore these themes in greater detail, Freelancers’ Movement writers have applied for funding to hold a series of workshops to rethink economic participation in online platforms. A variety of experts will be invited to contribute their ideas, selected from fields such as collaborative consumption, the co-operative movement, freelancers’ advocacy organizations, coworking spaces, venture capital, business development, and alternative economics. The end result will be not just a report, but a practical blueprint and a set of tools for any online community to use to create a platform which embraces a new participatory model of operation.

To contribute to this project, please contact Joel Dullroy: joel@freelancersmovement.org.

These ideas have been influenced by these blog posts by Zacqary Adam Green (Twitter: @XerxesQados) and Sara Horowitz. Thanks for your inspiration.