A new study by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) debunks myths that the rise in independent, flexible working in the UK predominantly takes the form of precarious, poorly paid self-employment.

While it doesn’t shirk from drawing attention to the existence of a badly remunerated, insecurely-engaged stratum among the self-employed, the new report, entitled Thriving, Striving or just about Surviving?, conducts a “segmentation” of self-employment to reveal that it is by no means a homogenous entity. The media characterisation of the independent, flexible workforce as predominantly composed of vulnerable, insecure and exploited people rapidly vanishes.

The “self-employed” in fact encompasses a huge spectrum of workers, with exceptionally well-remunerated, secure and autonomous “high flyers” at one end and two categories the report describes as “chronically precarious” and “acutely precarious” at the other. In between, the study identifies five other categories. In ascending order of income, autonomy, security and work satisfaction, these are:

  • flexi-workers
  • steady-staters
  • the idealists
  • the strivers

Flexi-workers are typically engaged in gig-economy work, but far from seeing themselves as victims of exploitation, the study found that most have actively chosen to work on a gig-by-gig basis because they value the autonomy and flexibility this form of work delivers.

High-flyers are disproportionally self-employed and, in addition to being well paid, also experience considerable fulfilment in their work. Many of these are skilled contracting professionals.

20% of the more precarious workers identified in the report are self-employed. This is the group that typically makes the headlines and they indeed do experience difficulties in making ends meets. Their existence confirms that certain strata of the self-employed are genuinely in a “vulnerable” position, but the report makes it abundantly clear that self-employment cannot and should not be categorised solely or predominantly in terms of this most precarious type of work.

Imogen Farhan, Policy and External Affairs Officer at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE), believes this nuanced study has implications for a proposed extension of reformed public sector IR35 rules to the private sector. Ms Farhan is blunt in her dismissal of government claims that the rules have not affected genuinely independent workers, citing evidence of blanket determinations by public sector bodies that forcibly redesignated skilled contracting professionals as “inside IR35”.

She writes: “Many of the people unfairly affected by this disastrous legislation, are the ‘high-flyers’ identified in the RSA research ­– highly paid, highly skilled, autonomous workers – exactly the sort of work the government should be supporting.”

IPSE intends to oppose moves to extend IR35 to the private sector and is inviting contracting professionals affected by the legislation in the public sector to contribute to its new evidence-gathering survey which can be accessed here.

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