Julia Kermode speaks to workingmums.co.uk about her new organisation IWORK which will champion and support independent workers.
Julia Kermode is CEO and founder of IWORK which she set up this year after working for many years for the Freelancer and Contractor Services Association [FCSA]. Championing independent work, the website provides a plethora of resources to help all types of independent workers, from agency workers, temps, gig workers, contractors, freelancers and the self-employed to better understand the business of working for themselves. workingmums.co.uk asked Julia about the inspiration for it and what its aims are.
workingmums.co.uk: Where did the idea come from for IWORK and how does it take forward what you were doing at the FCSA?
Julia Kermode: It’s actually something I’ve been thinking of setting up for a long time and, like many people, the impact of Covid made me re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my time. In particular, I started to think about the numbers of people who were losing their jobs and would now find themselves unexpectedly at a crossroads in their lives. It is those people I want to help. Some might be considering temping or working in the gig economy for the first time, and some people will be considering working for themselves as self employed. There is a huge range of non-permanent work within the UK. Much of it provides a very positive experience for both the individual worker and the businesses that engage, and I want to highlight those positives as well as to equip people with the right information they need so that they never feel exploited. In contrast, whilst I loved my role at FCSA, I felt I wasn’t making enough of a direct impact on that wide range of people who, arguably right now, need support and resources.
workingmums.co.uk: Why is there a need for it now? How long has it taken to develop? How has Covid impacted development?
Julia: There is a need for it now due to the increasing number of people considering alternative ways of working to earn a living, as a direct impact of the pandemic. IWORK has taken four months to develop, which is longer than I had hoped, but there were inevitable hitches and stumbling blocks along the way. Covid hasn’t really had much of an impact in terms of delaying the project as it was started whilst we were already in lockdown earlier this year, and I was fortunate that I didn’t need to hold meetings in person to get the enterprise up and running.
workingmums.co.uk: What will it provide? What are the subjects of some of the podcasts you have planned, for instance?
Julia: IWORK provides lots of relevant information to help people who work independently, i.e. people who work, but are not in permanent employment such as gig workers, freelancers, self-employed people and temporary workers. The podcasts are an important tool for providing that information in a format that listeners can enjoy at their convenience. Topics vary from very practical aspects such as how to complete your annual self-assessment tax return, to legalities such as IR35, to softer skills such as believing in yourself and achieving more than you thought possible. Importantly, the podcasts also deal with the realities of independent working, including an interview with an entrepreneur who lost her business; we discuss what happened, the impact on her personally and how she found the strength to get through it.
workingmums.co.uk: Will you lobby on behalf of freelancers and contractors and will you draw on best practice from other countries?
Julia: Our mission is championing independent workers which will also involve lobbying. In our experience, the Government seems to forget about this very important part of the workforce, which is surprising given that pre-Covid some 23% of the UK’s workforce was independent, i.e. working but not in permanent employment. It was very disappointing to find that a large proportion of these workers were unable to access any Government financial support during the pandemic and we cannot allow independent workers to continue to be forgotten and ignored in this way.
workingmums.co.uk:: Do you think there has been enough recognition of the issues faced by this group during Covid?
Julia: Absolutely not. It is only now (December), some eight months later that the plight of the forgotten is finally being recognised through relentless lobbying by volunteers which is now gaining some traction. It is unforgivable that they have been ignored until now.
workingmums.co.uk: Do you think there will be greater use of contractors/freelances by employers in the future due to the financial fall-out from Covid and due to a lack of jobs? While figures suggest that fewer people are opting for self employment currently, is this a short-term blip, given the last recession saw a rise in self employment?
Julia [pictured right]: Definitely. We know that businesses are, unfortunately, making people redundant as they seek efficiencies and savings, but we also know that some are looking to outsource functions which, in turn, is generating opportunities for freelancers, either by themselves or in collaboration with other freelancers. We also know that people faced with redundancy might use their situation as a catalyst to start working for themselves, particularly if it is something they have thought about doing anyway. There is also a school of thought that working independently might actually be more stable than permanent employment in some sectors right now.
And, with the economy in freefall, these workers are providing essential support that many companies in the private sector and many services in the public sector need. With economic uncertainty comes a reluctance and nervousness about hiring permanent employees who are entitled to numerous statutory rights such as paid holiday, maternity, paternity or adoption leave and, of course, the additional cost of employer NICs. Independent workers offer experience, expertise and knowledge that businesses and services can benefit on an as needs basis according to demand. They can also hit the ground running and deliver their expert services quickly if they are managed effectively.
workingmums.co.uk: What are the biggest issues facing this very broad group?
Julia: Sadly, the pandemic very clearly demonstrated that a number of independent workers did not have sufficient (or even any) insurance in place to cover the cost of sickness absence, and/or income protection. It seems inevitable that anyone setting up on their own right now will likely want to ensure they have appropriate cover, although some insurers are not currently able to offer policies with sufficient cover. The risk of financial instability is the single biggest issue facing this group currently and, unfortunately, this does go hand in hand with choosing to work in this way. Access to financial products, such as mortgages and loans, has progressed enormously in recent years with an increasing number of products available for self-employed people of all kinds. The key is for people to carefully weigh up the financial risks and make an informed decision about how they want to work before they start.
workingmums.co.uk: How big an issue is parental rights for freelancers and contractors?
Julia: Parental rights is a fairly significant issue for freelancers and contractors, although most are aware that there is no real statutory provision so plan their work and lifestyle accordingly. Maternity allowance (currently £151.20 per week, or 90% of your average earnings) is available for people who are not eligible for statutory maternity pay. However, in order to receive the full amount the individual must have paid Class 2 NICs for at least 13 weeks before the baby is due. There is no equivalent paternity allowance which seems remarkably out of step with a modern society these days, particularly compared to statutory employment rights. The Government does frequently consider parental rights for independent workers, and they do make positive noises in the right direction, but nothing seems to quite happen in practice. I don’t think the issue will go away because there is a good level of awareness that it can be a problem for families, so I do think that there will be some concrete action in due course.
workingmums.co.uk: As policymakers look to increase taxation on the self employed to bring them more in line with the employed, do you think more needs to be provided in the form of wraparound support for freelancers and contractors and has Covid underscored that need?
Julia: Absolutely. We are increasingly accepting and acknowledging that important work is done flexibly as was clearly demonstrated by the importance of self-employed couriers delivering online shopping at the height of the pandemic. The more that such independent working becomes “normal” (and don’t forget that pre-Covid some 23% of the workforce were in non-permanent work) then the more that needs to be done to properly support these workers. It is wrong to effectively penalise someone and reduce their benefits just by virtue of how they have decided to work; the fact remains that they are still contributing to the economy and the future of the UK. Again, policymakers do frequently discuss these issues, and if there will be any changes to taxation, I would certainly expect to see some levelling up of benefits and statutory rights accordingly.