Even if you want to stop freelancing, you probably won’t be able to

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FREELANCE WORK IS ON THE RISE AND STUDENTS ARE DROWNING IN ENDLESS TO-DO LISTS. AND ALTHOUGH YOU MAY WANT TO SWITCH CAREER PATHS, HERE’S WHY THE WORKFORCE IS MAKING THAT LOOK UNLIKELY FOR PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE

By Julia Mastroianni

When Nicole Ireland interned in 2016 with a small music label, she was struck by how hard the full-time staff was working—barely taking vacation time, eating three meals a day at their desks and being glued to phones that made a constant cacophony of sound as they rang all day.

Not only that, but she says many of them were also working other jobs on the side. “And that’s when I realized that because they were a small label, they still had to supplement their income,” she says. “I kind of realized that chances are, I’m either not going to have a job in the industry, or it’s going to be something that can’t sustain me completely.” 

Now, she has dabbled in all kinds of independent work, from social media management to opening online stores on contract through cross-stitching—a skill she learned as a hobby when she was 20 years old. 

The fifth-year creative industries student believes this kind of work has become more common over the years partly because of the nature of her industry. “It’s just the project-based nature of it. People will band together for a movie or releasing an album, but then once the thing is out, they don’t need help anymore.”

The term “independent work” refers to any work where the time period and amount of work are determined by the needs of the employer—and it’s on the rise. 

Statistics Canada counted 2.18 million temporary employees, or independent workers, in September 2017—more than double the number in September 2001. According to a Randstad survey of Canadian employers and employees, 85 per cent of companies anticipate pivoting to a more “agile workforce” by 2025. In other words, these companies will eventually hire more temporary, on-demand workers and less full-time staff. 

Nicole Cohen, University of Toronto communications professor and author of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age, says that this kind of independent, precarious work is not new. She says, historically, the groups who have been at the frontlines of freelance work include women, workers of colour, immigrants and especially young workers. In Toronto, this is a reality: a 2013 study on employment precarity in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), conducted by United Way Toronto, found that young people, people of colour and new immigrants were more likely to be in precarious work positions than secure work, such as a permanent, full-time job with benefits.

Mohammad Akbar is the Ontario regional director of the Canadian Freelance Union which advocates for freelancers in Canada by offering services such as insurance and grievance support. Akbar says that companies use the precarious nature of the work to their own benefit through the ability to cut their own costs. Freelance work serves an important purpose, he says, but employers are exploiting that rather than sticking to the principles of what a freelance model should look like. “Freelance work is supposed to create a system where they can engage in projects in a unique way whereas full time workers cannot. Employers are exploiting labor laws to work around, for example, giving workers benefits.” 

Andrew Cash, the co-founder of the Urban Worker Project, says that it requires at least some element of privilege to make the decision to freelance in a resourceful, sustainable way. And since independent workers have no protection under provincial or federal labour laws, there is no safety net for these workers to land on if something happens to them. 

Ryerson students certainly find themselves among those affected by these flaws of the workstyle, struggling with the amount of resources it requires to keep it up. And while that’s the case, experts say we might eventually get to a point where more of us must turn to this kind of work, not by chance or choice, but by a lack of other options. 

In May 2018, a report by FlexJobs reported that the temporary and contract work force is seeing more than just typical freelance jobs on the rise, such as designers and writers. Between May and July of 2016, the most in-demand career fields for freelancers were medical and health, education, project management, computer and IT, and accounting and finance. A representative told The Globe and Mail that although this was mostly founded on American job postings, it is consistently represented in Canada as well. 

“I was freelancing out of necessity and out of fear,” says Ireland. This will soon be the case for many more people. 

In a nightclub for two nights a week, Adam Kovak stays up until 2:30 a.m. He wakes up the next morning at 8:30 a.m. for work. Kovak does photography for the club as one of the many gigs he’s taken on as a freelance photographer.

He earned his post-graduate degree in 2014 from Humber College and was originally hired to design newspapers for a couple of different publications as a full-time job. On the side, he worked on growing his photography business the whole time. He shot sports videos for athletes who wanted to get scholarships, and now does freelance wedding photography along with the nightclub work. Shooting for fun isn’t part of his schedule anymore, so his ideas never see daylight. 

At his newspaper job, Kovak had benefits that he didn’t find himself using. But in hindsight, he wishes he had. “It’s something I haven’t really appreciated, because I’m young and I’m healthy and I don’t have any health issues.” 

Kovak also lacks a comfortable amount of resources to cover all the extra costs that come with his gigs, such as paying for ads to market to new clients. With those added costs, he originally was charging rates that barely made him a profit. He’s raised his prices since, but he also knows that he has to be competitive in an industry that has so many workers willing to do the same job. “There’s always someone else who is going to be willing to do it for cheaper.” 

Cash says that there are two types of independent workers, independent by choice and independent by chance. 

“Too many workers are a bicycle accident away from poverty, from the financial abyss,” Cash says. “They have no access to health and dental coverage, no access to a paid sick day, no access to any kind of disability, short term or long term…there’s also no income bridging between gigs.” According to the United Way Toronto study, precarious workers earn 46 per cent less than secure workers. 

After working like this for a couple of years, Kovak has made the decision to go to college to learn a trade instead: plumbing. He realized photography just won’t work for him. “It wasn’t a career I could build financially. I couldn’t buy a house, I couldn’t realistically think about even starting a family,” Kovak says. And yet, various industries are becoming more reliant on workers to take on this lifestyle. 

Freelancing, theoretically, has a bright side for its participants: more flexible hours, the ability to choose projects or companies they’re passionate about, and the opportunity to work from almost anywhere. That’s what drew fourth-year creative industries student Sierra Goulding to the work when she started freelancing as a makeup artist. Goulding can’t picture herself sitting in an office from nine to five, staring at a computer all day. “I just find it very draining. I’m always dreaming up creative things that I can do. So I knew a creative job was more for me.” 

According to the 2013 United Way Toronto study, the single-earner male-breadwinner archetype started to shift in the 1970s. As women became more educated and started to take on a different role in the family, they were hired for more temporary jobs in the service industry. Since then, jobs have continued to shift from manufacturing to the service sector. 

Goulding started out by helping out with choreographers but has now expanded into wedding makeup, creative shoots and hopefully, in the future, fashion-related work. It’s the community aspect of her work that drives Goulding. “I feel like if I was working in an office job, it probably wouldn’t be something I would care about as much as my own work.” 

A 2010 study on the effect of flexible working conditions on employee health found that working conditions that allow for increased worker control and choice—such as self-scheduling—had a positive effect on health, including reduced heart rate and blood pressure, psychological stress and decreased tiredness. Notably, when the flexibility was employer-negotiated rather than employee-negotiated, those positive health effects were lessened or non-existent. 

But a work-life balance doesn’t acknowledge the precarity of freelance jobs where you can choose your own hours, but don’t know if you’ll be employed next month. 

Ireland ran into a problem because of the lack of regulations early in her social media freelancing career. She now knows that her biggest mistake was not making contracts with her clients. There was no security at all, and the next month they could just say to her, “Oh, we don’t need you anymore.” 

For this reason, Cash says companies have a role to play in making various freelance industries better for the workers—employers will take advantage of the overlap by misclassifying workers who are technically employees by law as independent contractors to avoid paying vacation pay, sick days and other benefits.  

That being said, Cash also says it can be difficult to regulate misclassification when governments do so little to provide clear legislation around independent work. He illustrates this with two fictional private sector companies competing against one another. If one company has six illegally unpaid interns, while the other trains and pays their new employees: “That company is going to look down the road at their competition and say, ‘Well this guy has got six unpaid interns and no one is doing anything about it and I’m getting killed, so I’m going to do the same thing.’” 

Cash says the only way to improve the current situation for independent workers is to not only create legislation that protects them, but to enforce it as well. “We could have the most creative and progressive labour legislation in North America, but if governments aren’t going to take it seriously and get behind it and put the resources into enforcement, they’re barely worth the paper they’re written on.”

One of the main issues for independent workers under the law right now is how they can access employment insurance (EI). EI covers insurance after losing a job, sickness, maternity and parental leave, compassionate care and family caregiver benefits. EI is available for self-employed workers, or someone who owns a business, but there are many limitations to accessing EI as an independent worker. Access to pensions, supplementary health benefits and the deliberate misclassification of workers are all other issues independent workers must grapple with. 

The last time Ireland experienced the stress of freelancing was winter of 2017, when she was at school full-time, had two part-time retail jobs and three social media clients. There was a constant need to be doing something related to one of those jobs at any given time of the day. 

But she doesn’t want that to be the case anymore.

Whether employers intend to exploit their workers or not, to-do lists pile up for people like Ireland. 

She thinks of herself 10 years down the road and sees two possibilities: she’s either working full-time at a company she loves or has opened her own shop for cross-stitching and other crafts. 

The only certainty is that she won’t be freelancing. 

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