Social Justice in a Freelance World 2: Freelance status - are we trade unionists or small businesses?

Report from EFJ conference in Brussels, November 1999

Freelance status - are we trade unionists or small businesses?


Different unions in Europe take very different attitudes to self-employment - some embracing the need to help journalists to work as small businesses, others vigorously defending a more traditional trade union role. Competition law may also affect the way that freelances organise.


  • FREG should continue to work on definitions of freelances

  • EFJ/IFJ member unions should look for evidence of anti-competitive practices by publishers and producers in their dealings with us

Working in a regulated world

Suzanne Bontemps of the Belgian national broadcaster RTBF described a situation in which freelance work was tightly regulated and freelance conditions were protected. Freelances or independents normally worked only on specific tasks as specialists or foreign correspondents and received higher rates in order to pay for their pension. Fixed-term contracts existed but would become unlimited after two years. Pigistes, who are paid by word or line but enjoy the benefits of employment, were employed in the sports section but received the same remuneration as staff and were paid in terms of seniority.

Adapting to new ways of working

Bernie Corbett, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) freelance organiser, described how UK freelances were adopting new ways of working, as small businesses with different customers or clients. "In the UK, freelances do not use the term 'employers'. They use publisher or client instead." The use of freelances in place of staff journalists was growing, because publishers wanted to increase their profits. A group of freelances has been forced into this category, where they often became a sort of second-class employee. However, many freelances valued the independence of working for themselves. Some were successful specialists. But were they to be forced to identify and organise themselves as micro businesses with all the new skills that required? Corbett hoped that there still was a role for traditional negotiation of fees and conditions. Activities such as training were new forms of collective action that unions probably have to come to terms with. With the help of government subsidies, the NUJ now offers a wide range of training courses. There were 3000 applications for 500 training course places in the first year, which showed that the NUJ had identified a huge need among freelance journalists.

An argument for professional associations

Michael Hirschler, freelance officer, Deutscher Journalisten-Verbund (DJV), played devil's advocate, arguing that it might be necessary for unions to again become professional associations, representing the self-employed. When the DJV was founded in Germany 50 years ago, it was a professional organisation, not a union, because most members were still working full time under freelance contracts. Hirschler suggested that some freelances preferred to work as businesses for the tax and authors' rights advantages - so they wanted the DJV to be a professional organisation again. "Perhaps - as devil's advocate - this is the way forward 50 years later," Michael Hirschler said.

The debate

Ireland: Ronan Brady, NUJ Ireland, said that in Ireland the situation was slightly different to the UK. NUJ Ireland regarded the establishment of small businesses as very dangerous and advised freelances to bind themselves as closely as possible to the staff. "I do not know whether casualisation is inevitable, but I know that death is inevitable but embracing it enthusiastically is called suicide," he said. Brady added that the further the unions went towards coping with the problems of freelances the more freelances would lose the protection of traditional trade union organisation. Denmark: Karen Bech, Danish Union of Journalists (DJ), stressed that in Denmark the union was fighting hard for freelances not to become businesses. Instead they were struggling to get works councils or chapels at papers and broadcasting stations to represent freelances too. The union's stance had paid off in terms of competition law (see below). Sweden: Arne König, Swedish Union of Journalists (SJ) underlined the importance of staff and freelances working together. SJ has set up a company to provide advice and support for the two-thirds of members who have the legal status of small businesses. He stressed the importance of explaining to staff journalists the reason for these developments to avoid a split at worst, and to explain to employees that when freelances received low fees they were undercutting staff. Finland: Kristian Runeberg, Union of Journalists in Finland, said VAT hit photographers but not writers about 20 years ago. In Finland, photographers became business women and men almost automatically, being required by law to do business accounts.

Competition law

Karen Bech of the Dansk Journalistforbundet (DJ) described an important court case in Denmark relating to freelance rates and competition law (the Danish Union of Journalists vs. the Danish Competition Council). On 20 November 1997 the Competition Agency ruled that the union's recommended list of rates, <cite>Recommended Terms for Freelance Journalism</cite>, was regulating the business activities of journalists and therefore covered by competition legislation. The DJ appealed against this decision. The verdict of April 1999 (27 April 1999, Decision by the Danish Competition Appeals) accepted that freelance journalists often do similar work to staff journalists. The list of rates applied only where freelances were not covered by collective bargaining agreements. It dealt with pay and conditions and so labour law rather than competition law should apply. A new list of rates had been now been published. Report by Ros Bayley