Five million people in Britain are now self-employed and this continues to grow, soon to overtake the size of the public sector. Although growth of the gig economy is now slowing, there is no doubt that technology is fundamentally changing the nature of work.

Trade unions are used to working with traditional forms of employment – permanent jobs with employment contracts and accessible shop floors – but the workforce is now starting to look very different. Increasingly people are switching jobs, careers and sectors and more and more workers do not have contracts at all. This requires us to think differently about how we approach and represent these workers and, secondly, how we approach and work with an employer, if there is one, so that we are relevant to the needs of modern workers. That’s why at Community we’re taking action to ensure innovation works for workers, on our terms, and that means ensuring good pay, fairer working conditions and decent work prevail through any change.

We’re seeing over 3.9 million workers in the UK such as parents, carers, women and the underemployed who would like additional work to earn an extra income to help their family, or top up their wage. There are legitimate concerns that unions share about the potential for exploitation, but responses differ as to how this can be prevented and how workers who want gig work or to be self-employed can be supported.

At Community, we have joined forces with Labour xchange, an independent platform that connects individuals to employers in an open and fair way. People can sign up and list their availability for work, which businesses then book as and when staff are required. The workers get work on their terms, while businesses get the staff they need, when they need them.

Labour xchange ensures that workers are paid a living wage for their work within 24 hours, meaning people aren’t left in the lurch like we know many self-employed workers are, unpaid and unable to predict and manage their finances. This innovative system has led to increased wages and more security for working people.

Community believes flexibility and fair work are not mutually exclusive. Much research has shown that self-employed people feel working in this way creates more opportunity, encourages transparency, flexibility and innovation. Trade unions need to ensure these workers can be given the opportunity to reap the benefits of gig work as well as mitigating the adverse impacts of low paid work.

There is a great trade union tradition of supporting self-employed workers in the creative and media industries. However, there’s not a great deal of union support for the growing number of self-employed workers in the wider economy.

At Community, we’ve found an increasing number of our members have been leaving traditional employment and going it alone as our traditional trade union offer wasn’t relevant to them. So we looked at the support that we offer and at who else was working with self-employed people, and were introduced to a co-operative called Indycube who provide affordable co-working desk space to self-employed people. 

Working in partnership with them we’ve come up with a package of benefits to support self-employed workers. It includes a factoring service, where in return for a small percentage, a company will pay your invoice on time and then it will chase up the payment from your client.

It’s only by collectivising workers with the backing of a trade union that we’ve been able to access such services and it’s a solution to a problem that millions of self-employed and sole traders face. In the UK today, self-employed workers are owed £26 billion. We want to get that money back in their pockets and back into local economies.

The provision of services for self-employed workers is not new. Organisations such as IPSE and the FSB have offered benefits and services to self-employed people for many years.

However, collective representation and the strengthening of the voice of gig and self-employed workers is lacking outside the aforementioned sector-specific unions. And the reality is that too many of those who face low pay and poor conditions are in these types of employment. So there is a duty on unions to change our normal practices to ensure we continue to fulfil the purpose for which we were created: to empower workers to come together and improve their lot.

Pointing out the problems or concerns around working independently isn’t enough. Trade unions need to recognise that working this way – whilst not always a choice – isn’t solved by saying that everyone needs to be directly employed and involved in a rigid employment relationship with an employer.

Expanding the self-employed and freelance network of users and organising them into a collective group with a voice on the issues that matter to them is why we’re proud to be a modern union for a changing world, by preparing our economy and workplaces for the next generation of workers.

Kate Dearden is Research and Campaigns Officer at the trade union Community