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NUJ calls for greater legal rights for freelances

15 June 2009

Freelance workers who are primarily dependent upon a single organisation should be entitled to legal rights similar to those protecting employees, the NUJ's Freelance Organiser told a conference of contractors, tax experts and employment lawyers on Wednesday,

In a speech to the Professional Contractors Group conference, John Toner called for a change in the law so that organisations have an obligation to treat regular casual and freelance workers fairly.

The way the government currently defines a "worker" means that many people are effectively working full-time for companies but without any of the employment protection granted to employees.

John Toner gave examples of journalists whose regular income has been wiped out overnight because employment law fails to protect these vulnerable workers. He referred to a reporter who worked for 18 months for a newspaper, doing between five and 10 shifts per week:

"One night he was approached and told: We won't be needing you any more after tonight. His entire source of income was cut off at a stroke."

He also talked about a columnist who received 90 per cent of her income from a weekly column in a national newspaper. After 12 years of working for the same company, she got an email to say she would be paid for two columns she had already filed, but there would be no more commissions.

John Toner said:

"We would like to see the Government adopt a broader definition of 'worker' and provide statutory workers' rights on a pro rata basis. This already works for holiday pay, and could be made to apply to other rights.
"Employers will argue that if we are going to do that we might as well give them contracts of employment. To which I would say: you've got a deal. If they are going to treat people as employees when it suits them, they should be forced to do it properly."

He also used the conference as a chance to highlight the many problems faced by freelance workers in defending their copyright. The vulnerable nature of their employment means that many freelances don't have the confidence to stand up to defend their intellectual property when organisations attempt a "rights grab".

John Toner said:

"Far too many publishers are using their muscle to try to bully freelances out of their copyright. Their tactic is simple: hand over your copyright or you don't work for us.
"We have campaigned, and will continue to campaign, for a change in the legislation that will make it unlawful to force anyone to surrender their copyright. For the NUJ, this is a matter of enormous importance."

One approach that would help tackle these problems would be the statutory right to collective bargaining for freelance workers. John Toner concluded his speech by highlighting this issue and calling for a change in the law:

"When New Labour introduced the Fairness at Work legislation, they created a statutory right to trade union recognition if this is desired by the majority of a workforce. This does not apply to freelances.
"At the forefront of the NUJ's campaigning is the need for a law that does not discriminate, but will give the right of union recognition to all dependent workers – a law that does not exclude freelances. A civilised society can do no less."

The employment problems that freelances are facing have been exacerbated by the current wave of cutbacks across the industry. The NUJ has designated July as freelance month, with a call on NUJ branches to take up the campaign for freelance rights.

Tags: , rights, freelance, copyright, fees, collective bargaining, labour party britain, professional contractors group, conference, law