by Roberta Staley

What is the future for freelance workers in Canada and around the world? The more cynical might ask: do freelancers even have a future?

The answer to that is an optimistic and unequivocal “yes,” according to an international panel of speakers who addressed about 150 attendees at the “The Future of Freelance” workshop at The Urban Worker Project’s second annual Skillshare, held at SFU Vancouver at Harbour Centre on March 1.

The one-day symposium was part of the 2018 Public Square Community Summit – Brave New Work conference held Feb. 26-March 7 in Vancouver. Brave New Work was comprised of a series of public meetings intended to provoke thinking and encourage solution-finding to the rapid and often-discombobulating technological, demographic, political, global and social changes underway that are altering the way people organize work.

The Urban Worker Project focused on how to give a stronger voice to the growing number of independent workers across Canada — now numbering 30 per cent of the work force — who do not receive the security benefits that traditional full-time employees receive, such as parental leave, health and dental benefits, income security and workplace protections.

With a general focus on building a better future for independent workers, panel participants addressed a wide range of issues, from the need to establish cooperative networks among independent workers, organizing co-worker spaces and advocating for a social safety net.

International panelists discuss solutions

Speakers included Belgium’s Frisia Donders, strategic partnership development manager at SMart EU, a cooperative that offers a wide range of tools and services to more than 100,000 freelancers and professionals in Europe.

Other panelists were Caitlin Pearce, executive director at Freelancers Union in the United States and New Zealand native Chloe Waretini, who now works at Montreal’s Percolab, an organization that envisions the future of work as a co-creative paradigm that is inclusive to multi-disciplinary, self-managing workers and entrepreneurial teams.

The fourth panelist was Vancouver’s Ashley Proctor, a pioneer in the co-working movement who created the Coworking Health Insurance Plan (COHIP), which provides independent workers in Canada health and dental benefits. Proctor is also executive director of the 312 Main Project, transforming Vancouver’s former police headquarters in the Downtown Eastside into a cooperative workspace.

The panel was moderated by Andrew Cash, co-founder of the Urban Worker Project, while Toronto’s Jocelyn Phillips of Social Capital Partners, which develops innovative social finance solutions in Canada, launched the discussion with a 10-minute presentation on how Canada can become the best place in the world to be a freelance worker or contractor.

Social safety net leaves freelancers out in the cold

Phillips pointed out that the social safety net that full time workers currently enjoy, such as employment insurance (EI) and T4 tax slips, which quantify such things as Canadian Pension Plan contributions, are not available to independent workers.

This leaves many independents out in the cold, unable to afford or take vacations for fear of losing clients, and being unable to qualify for a mortgage, as they don’t have regular pay stubs. “Work is changing and the government isn’t changing to support the workers of today,” says Phillips.

This lack of government action has forced workers to come up with new ideas and innovations on their own. Donders says that the services offered by SMart EU include administrative functions such as bill collecting, in addition to legal advice, unemployment benefits and insurance against work accidents.

America’s Freelancers Union, boasting 375,000 people whose membership gives them access to all-important affordable health insurance, also compiles data on freelancer numbers. Today in the US, 36 per cent of the workforce consists of freelancers, says Pearce. Trends indicate they will comprise a majority of the workforce within a decade. “So we need to rethink our social safety network appropriately.”

Waretini of Percolab pointed out some of the benefits of being an independent worker. For herself, Waretini wanted early in her career to tackle “huge world challenges” like climate change. She “didn’t want to wait until I was 50 at the top of a [corporate] pyramid to do really good work.”

Millennials, she adds, are “super impatient to work on the problems of the world…we have to dial more human energy into that to make it happen.” One of the ways in which to do this is to support the creation and expansion of organizations like Enspiral Foundation, which connects workers in its network to help them build their business. Such networks offer things not seen in the traditional workforce, such as transparency, autonomy, diversity and mutual aid, or “taking care of each other,” Waretini says.

What do independent workers need the most?

During a wide-ranging discussion that lasted well over an hour, panelists addressed a variety of questions posed by moderator Andrew Cash, including what the one thing independent workers need the most.

Answers from the panel included dismantling the loneliness so often experienced by individuals who work in isolation at home or in coffee shops, the ability to access information and connections, as well as how to become advocates for themselves and others while developing their unique gifts.

Another key question was how to help young people envision and prepare for a life of independent work. Waretini said that outdated narratives about what constitutes success, such as lofty titles and the accumulation of wealth, need to evolve.

Proctor responded that current education, financial or political systems do nothing to prepare workers for a life of freelance.

“The safety net wasn’t built for us and that’s why we are building it ourselves,” she said.

Roberta Staley is a magazine editor and writer specializing in medical, science and business reporting. Follow her on Twitter at @RobertaStaley.

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