Freelance journalists from 17 European countries gathered in Brussels in November 1999 to share experiences and to agree priorities for action. The starting point for the two-day conference was the growth in the use of freelances in almost all the countries represented, as employers seek to cut costs and compete in global markets. Although conditions differ from country to country, in most states freelances are not afforded the same degree of social protection that employees enjoy.
The European Union is seeking both to increase self-employment and to limit the abuse of it by employers who force people to work on fixed-term contracts. The conference resolved that member unions must watch closely as their governments incorporate the fixed-term contract directive into national law to ensure that freelance rights are protected.
Being freelance, however, means quite different things in different countries and the most heated debate of the conference arose over the question of whether freelances should operate as small businesses. No conclusion could be reached. In some countries, like Sweden, freelances have had to become small businesses and unions have responded by providing business services. In others, freelances and unions are fighting against becoming small businesses - in the case of Denmark, for instance, partly to avoid coming under competition, rather than labour, law.
The conference heard about the new ways that some unions are servicing their freelance members - including providing training - and the exciting opportunities for organising freelances that e-mail offers. In other cases, unions still have to be convinced of the need to represent freelances at all. Unions everywhere should encourage co-operation between staff and freelances, they should seek representation for freelances and they should provide training, the conference resolved.
The conference also looked at the globalisation of media markets and the urgent need for co-ordinated work to protect authors' rights and public sector broadcasting as international trade agreements are writing the rules for the new digital economy.
Report by Ros Bayley