How Digital Workers are Getting Organized: The Freelancers’ Rights Movement
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.