Self-employment, or the illusion of freedom

Self-employment, or the illusion of freedom

An account of 'freelancing' and the attitude this has promoted within the author's co-workers.

I met him at a dinner party last autumn. He said, “There are a thousand girls like her,” when my friend told the owner of the small film company that I was looking for work. He was right. Six months later, he called needing urgent help. Now, I work at least 20 hours a week for him. He’d like me to do more, full-time work if possible—for minimum wage, because he can’t give me a contract.

Our initial agreement was that I would give him an invoice and “independently take care of my work.” To do that, I have to be in the office four hours a day, answering calls, running daily orders and doing stock work. This is not self-employment. I am not even sure it is legal. Still, I have gotten the boss to pay me enough to theoretically do my own taxes, buy insurance and end up with minimum wage. The union people I talk to tell me not to do it. They say that it is not technically self-employment. If I listen to them I won’t have a job.

“So, what do you do for money?” asked the company’s new intern. When I answered, “I work here,” she looked like I’d just said I didn’t like chocolate. Everyone around here is an artist, or “creative” in some way. The boss is one of us; he’s a lovely guy. We all only care about great art. Beyond the specialism of this niche, the issues are that small businesses don’t require union representation and that bosses, in terms of what they do, can appear to be “one of us.” We all have two to three other jobs, just like we did ten years ago. I make less net income now than I did then. I am not alone in this, but it is hard to get to know your colleagues between so many jobs. The film company is my best bet, because there is an office, I go there to work and other people work there too.

Even my colleague at my second job, at a delicatessen, is a budding filmmaker. When we meet to talk about work, he tells me he doesn’t “care about the other folk.” He just wants to make movies and move to California. I want to tell him that he’s not going to make a living from the films he makes and that working in a California grocery won’t be much sexier than what he’s doing now (unless you consider his potential visa troubles). I want to ask him why he insists in believing that there is some ladder that he is climbing. But I don’t say that. If you want to build solidarity you shouldn’t mock the dreams of colleagues. Those dreams are going to help us. Even if his dream is to make a film, or to move to California, he doesn’t want to be stuck here. He believes he can get a better deal. I try to believe the same.

There is a long-term trend toward being your own creative director. It pushes workers into conning themselves that they can get a better deal if they are self-employed. The whole “start-your-own-company, be-your-own-boss” racket is heavily pushed by government agencies and all kinds of employers. It was first put forth as a solution to high unemployment and then, less openly, as a route to cut costs and erode worker solidarity and class consciousness. It relies on people’s underlying hatred of work, personified by the boss, and sells the dream of autonomy by telling people that they can become their own, fake, boss. The reality is different. Companies don’t hire people full time or long term anymore. They realize that freelancers are, in reversal of the marketing image, more at the mercy of employers than regular employees. We have to compete with all the other one-person businesses and supply our own laptops, software and unpaid time to learn skills.

This scenario seems like an upgraded version of the employment structures from 100 years ago. Workers would go to a hiring hall in the morning, bringing with them their own tools and work clothes, and hope to be picked for a job. They competed with all the other workers in the hall.

The boss is away now, so there is a window of opportunity to get to know everyone a bit. I want to figure out if they can help me get a permanent contract. But even the desire for a permanent contract and the benefits that come with it—something precarious workers are organizing around at bigger companies in less “glamorous” fields—is not really part of our conversation. Still, as I talk with my colleagues I realize that most of us don’t believe in the illusions of freedom and opportunity that are supposed to come with self-employment. The more conversations we have, the more openly they talk about how our multiple insecure jobs seem to direct our lives. It feels like there is something shameful about these conversations. Shameful because the ordinariness of our jobs is something we should be above as we pursue our creative ventures.

It’s hard to see how to connect and make common cause with freelancers beyond my own small immediate job radius. While there are a myriad of associations, initiatives and networks, it is unclear how freelancers can take common actions beyond their self-imposed limits of industry, employment status and geographical area. These limits are irrelevant to the realities of the diverse range of jobs we engage in as workers.

I think that if I get the backing of my de facto colleagues, I’ll be able to ask my boss for a contract in September. It won’t be by finding some initiative to join, but by making it clear to him, IWW-style, that all of the workers on the job have my back. I am not sure I can change anything else. People will move on and come back. New ones will show up to do some work. The unending flow of unpaid interns, reminding us that we’re all replaceable, will continue.

Yes, there are “a thousand girls like me” here. It might be slow and it might be small, but we need to find ways to meet, talk and realize again that what I was told made me expendable is also what makes us stronger.

- Editor’s note: Monika works in France.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)


Sep 2 2012 14:16

It was great to read this text. The illusion of self-employment was something I wanted to talk about in here too, as this reality is not as comforting as people always say it is, and I wish there were ways to organize ourselves in order to suffer less under such working conditions.

I spent six months unemployed until I finally got offered a job at my city’s biggest architectural rendering company. They were excited about my portfolio, but offered me less than two minimum wages (in Brazilian terms, about 430 euros) for a 8:00 to 18:00 journey of work. I’d do the same kind of projects that I used to do on my own, knowing very well that they were worth almost eight times more what they intended to pay me. I refused the job and decided to keep going on my own, partnering with an architect that needed people to help him on the projects he was doing for a giant mining corporation.

Working from home, I have less transportation expenses, and at least I can decide to do my own stuff when my daily work quota is over, but at the same time this is a very disturbing situation. I do 95% of the work and I probably receive only 50% of what the project is paying, as it is my “partner”, the architect, who owns the project. It’s his company’s name that’s at play. Sometimes I get quite angry, like last week, for example: he called me to say that he had two new projects to be taken care of until October 1, but he would travel to Disneyland the next day and spend two weeks having lots of fun, so meanwhile I would have to take care of everything about these new projects, I mean literally everything, even doing stuff I had no clue about.

Right now, working as a self-employed person means fragility to me. I spend a few months working on a project and the reward I get in the end is unemployment. “Oh, great, you did it, thanks! Now we don’t need you anymore, but if we eventually do, we’ll call you”. I find it very odd, because if the projects keep coming in a constant flow, and all from the same company, then it means I could have a fixed contract. Working at home, I don’t count on holidays anymore, and I often have to spend my weekends on my projects, not to mention the eventual months when my journey goes from 7:00 to 21:00. Insomnia, constant nausea and headaches were my other rewards. Yes, I could save some money so far, money that I could maybe use for leisure, but as I don’t know whether I’ll have any project from October on, and how long it could take until the next one comes, I don’t dare to spend any of this money, afraid that I might not have enough to make a living later on.

Well, it’s a really frustrating situation. I was told that self-employment was the greatest thing of the future worker, as it would allow us more freedom and better payment, but so far these advantages are overwhelmed by constant insecurity.

It was really nice to read an account on this topic. I hope we can all build broader networks of solidarity and try to improve our situation.

Sep 2 2012 19:49

Good reading, I'm in the same boat maybe its time we really start talking about what some are calling the precariat. It'd be nice to discuss subjectivity under these conditions, class consciousness, organization, etc but for now I think just pointing out is a good start.

Nov 26 2012 23:35

Thanks, I don't usually do online discussing much. I just wanted to post a wee update, that's obviously somewhat insignificant to the larger issues, but pretty sweet so far, personally - since I wrote the above, me and another co-worker managed to get contracts. Wider issues remain, but it's still a plus, of course.

Nov 27 2012 18:32
movyk wrote:
Thanks, I don't usually do online discussing much. I just wanted to post a wee update, that's obviously somewhat insignificant to the larger issues, but pretty sweet so far, personally - since I wrote the above, me and another co-worker managed to get contracts. Wider issues remain, but it's still a plus, of course.

hey, that's great, thanks for updating us!

Nov 27 2012 21:35
movyk wrote:
Thanks, I don't usually do online discussing much. I just wanted to post a wee update, that's obviously somewhat insignificant to the larger issues, but pretty sweet so far, personally - since I wrote the above, me and another co-worker managed to get contracts. Wider issues remain, but it's still a plus, of course.

Yeah! Great news.