‘My life experience was tantamount to worthless’ Freelancing Precariat

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Photo: Raimond Spekking

by Rebecca Ridolfo©

Recently, I saw Guy Standing interviewed on the Keiser Report about his book: A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. He is Professor of Development Studies at the University of London and writes about the increasingly precarious nature of modern employment. Pressure is put on wages by the demographics of soaring youth unemployment, immigration and people in their 60s & 70s who have to or want to continue to work. Corporate demand for a flexible workforce is colliding with the need for a stable income to keep a roof over workers’ heads. The domination of corporations is reflected in the rise of Zero Hours contracts and the accelerating growth of the Precariat.

It prompted me to reminisce about my career as a freelancer. My experience corresponds to what Guy Standing is saying. It is amazing how much things have changed in the flexible labour market in the past 30 years.
In the late 1980s, I had to leave school and get a job, so I became a temporary secretary. It was a time of rapid technological change. I worked for an agency that treated me well – particularly when they realised I was a fast learner. They took the standard 10% commission and my wages rapidly went from a tolerable £1.80 per hour to a comfortable £2.30 per hour.

I continued freelancing in Greater London and then the City, earning more and still paying the standard 10% commission. I worked in research publishing for companies like Barclays de Zoete Wedd, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, British Telecom, British Aerospace, Saatchi & Saatchi and KPMG. It was easy to get 35 hours & more of work a week, every week. Highlights including receiving a standing ovation for efficiency from a group of Swiss & German fund managers and the chance to study Interpretation of Financial Statements.

Then I moved to Hong Kong, where I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, Odyssey Guides & the South China Morning Post, in forex market-making, dragon bond sales and capital markets research. I sold US$1 million worth of dragon bonds in a single phone call and increased advertising revenue by 67% during 6 months as Editor of Human Resources Magazine. After the Handover in 1997, it was difficult to get a work visa and the temping jobs dried up as companies moved to the newly-built Pudong district of Shanghai. I decamped to Thailand and started making a good living as a freelance teacher. As part of my teaching work, I attended the Crown Princess’s birthday party, where I sat next to the King’s senior advisor discussing bioplastics.

I’m flexible, learn fast and produce high quality work – everything employers say they want.

Absolute vs Relative Wages

The difference between absolute and relative wages causes a great deal of confusion. Charles Dickens summed it up beautifully in David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds; annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence] – result: happiness. Annual income twenty pounds; annual expenditure twenty pounds, ought and six – result: misery.” The same equation can be applied to the global labour market when judging whether workers in the Developing World are “less greedy” than their Western counterparts.

If you are paid enough to live, eat, socialise and save for the future, you are relatively wealthy. If you are barely paid enough to live & eat, you are relatively poor. It is the relationship between wages & prices in your local area that determine whether you earn a living wage – £100 per week goes a lot further in China, Korea or Thailand than it does in Britain. Justifying the offshoring of jobs on the grounds of absolute wages is a logical fallacy that fails the Dickens Test.

How Freelancing Changed

In 2003, I returned to Britain to spend time with my dying father. That meant I had to live in Plymouth – not London or the Home Counties – and I found a very different labour market. During the 9 years I was overseas, I discovered that the cost of living in Britain had risen much faster than the hourly salary. There were so many freelancers & temps that it was very difficult to get more than 20 hours of work a week, for more than 2 weeks a month. Here are 3 illustrative examples of what employers mean when they say they want “flexible” freelancers.

I worked as a temporary secretary at a Chartered Surveyors. They would only offer me part-time hours on a weekly basis – I’d find out on the Friday whether or not I’d have any work on the Monday. They paid me minimum wage and expected me to do skilled work like book-keeping. I discovered that the agency’s commission fees on my work were 50%, because I processed the invoices. They also expected me to do increasing amounts of unpaid overtime. When I questioned it, they told me I would have to trust them that, at some unspecified time in the future, they would start paying me overtime. They expected me to take the same risk as the partners, but without the commensurate share in the profits – ‘flexible’ being a one-way street. I was paid for fewer hours than I worked, for lower-level skills than I was using and lost 50% of my wages in fees every week.

Then I did some Christmas work at the Post Office. Mail is mainly sorted by computer nowadays, but some people don’t address their envelopes clearly. The Royal Mail had 2 centres at which data-entry clerks deciphered the handwriting and typed it into the system. The December that I worked in the Plymouth centre, the Royal Mail had just started delegating hire of the extra temporary staff to Reed Employment. The previous year, everyone had been paid £15 per hour; that year, all that was left after Reed had taken their cut was £7.50 per hour. The workers, already on the bottom rung, took a 50% pay-cut for the convenience of the Post Office and the profits of Reed Employment. At the end of December, they offered continuing work to the fastest workers – I was among them – but demanded that we switch from the night shift to the day shift, taking a pay-cut & a break of only 6 hours. Only those who can tolerate sleeping for less than 4 hours between 10-hour shifts need apply.

The ‘safety net’ was not as advertised. The Job Centre told me that I would receive support in making ends meet – a kind of working tax credit – if I worked 16 hours or less per week doing seasonal teaching work. It turned out that the cut-off point was actually 15 hours 59 minutes and it was on me for believing them when they said 16. It meant that they immediately cancelled my payments and deleted my claim. They said reassessing it would take 3 days, but it actually took 6 weeks and I only avoided homelessness because my landlord liked me.

I loved teaching and have a high tolerance for risk – I travelled alone around Asia for 9 years – but the DWP made freelancing so complex & precarious that I had to stop doing it because the stress made me ill. If you wondered why G4 couldn’t find workers for the Olympics, look no further than the DWP. Who would be willing to sacrifice their home for a month’s temping? If there’s not another temp job at the end of it, it may well take the DWP weeks to step in. A backdated claim in 2 months’ time won’t buy groceries today.

Too many skills

I had blue-chip skills, international experience and worked faster than 95% of the competition. That was my level whenever it was measured objectively by metrics, such as hitting Orange’s 30-day training target in 4 days and often hearing the phrase “our best temp/trainee ever”. Yet I discovered that the days of hiring the best freelancers for permanent positions are long gone, as is any chance of rising through the ranks. Start at the bottom, stay at the bottom. Come in as a temp, leave next week, regardless of what you do. Having “too many skills” was the most common reason I heard for not being hired – “you’ll get bored & leave”. Meanwhile, the Job Centre kept telling me to aim lower, but following their advice never worked. If they were trying to advise me well, it was a 100% fail rate.

I have had 5 different government employment consultants, 2 of them from G4S. Most of them were well-meaning & polite. None of them offered me a single piece of advice. They all said: “this service is not designed for people like you”, “I don’t know what to tell you” and “there’s nobody I can refer you to”. One group saw me once a week for 6 months without offering any concrete suggestions. At the penultimate interview, they broke the news to me that 6 months was it, goodbye. They really seemed to want to help, but the services are all set up solely for those who struggle with literacy & numeracy. The system has no solution for the problems of having “too many skills” & “too much experience”. There is no mechanism for dealing with anything out of the ordinary and no policy for adjusting services to meet stated goals or individual differences.

The strategies that used to work have stopped working and nobody seems to be able to tell me what will work in the new environment. Or perhaps the answer is what they’ve been telling me – nothing. Perhaps it is an issue of general economic health – should have been born in a different year and by the time the latest recession is over you’re too old. Perhaps it is an issue of location – if you can’t afford to move to the capital city, you can’t have a job – or that overseas experience somehow makes one suspect – we don’t want someone who has lived in Asia dealing with our Asian clients. Perhaps the problem is with government making support systems so unreliable & passive-aggressive that the risk is untenable. Perhaps the problem is with human resources management. Is it that companies see what I can do and then chose to ignore it for some mysterious reason? Is it that companies have the narrowest possible focus – completing this task rather than sourcing talent – and they are simply not looking for anything beyond it? If some are looking beyond their noses, who are they? I haven’t found them.

Joblessness Mythbusting

All of the things people commonly say on the subject in no way reflect my experience.

Employers say that they want flexible workers. I loved freelancing and was able to make a good living from it in the City, Hong Kong and Bangkok. What they mean by ‘flexible’ in Britain nowadays is ‘willing to either get into debt or continually risk homelessness, to sleep & eat less than they need and to become the grudging responsibility of the State when the stress makes them ill’. That stopped me from being able to – much less loving to – freelance.

Employers say that they have “trouble finding skilled workers”. What employers mean is that they have trouble finding skilled workers who will tolerate rock-bottom wages & low status. Or they mean that they have trouble finding Oxbridge graduates, because they are competing with all the other companies for a single small pool of workers and ignoring all other sources of skills. This is particularly the case for the over-40s, who generally didn’t need a degree in the days when they started working. Now you need a degree to work in a call centre and your life experience is tantamount to worthless.

Employers say that they want to reduce costs. To do this, they slash salaries without considering that – in the economy as a whole – employees are the market. Stunt the purchasing power of workers & you shrink your market. Such companies need subsidies in the form of working tax credits, create a stagnant economy, burdens on the NHS and blight workers’ hope & ambition.

Employers say that British workers are “greedier” than Chinese or Korean workers. Their definition of greedy turns out to be a need for housing, food & energy. I earned less in absolute terms in Thailand, for example, but had a far higher standard of living.

“They don’t want to work” is a dagger in the heart of anyone desperate for a job but unable to find one. I have signed petitions about jobseekers dead next to stacks of rejection letters. According to the Open University, statisticians controlling for all of the usual variables have found that the suicide rate goes up significantly due to recessions & high unemployment, just the tip of the iceberg of misery.

It is really ‘they don’t want to be exploited at work’ or ‘there isn’t any work round here’? Would you still like your job if it were renamed ‘admin assistant’ and reduced to minimum wage? Would you tolerate what I have described? If the answer is no, can you really expect other people to do so?

Rebecca Ridolfo© also writes for MENSA’s newsletter on economics, finance and trade, Economania

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