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INVESTIGATING THE DEBATE ON FREELANCERS

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INVESTIGATING THE DEBATE ON FREELANCERS

This blog was written by Pierre Spaninks

Combining investigative journalism with crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, independent journalists from the Netherlands investigated the political debate on freelancers that is going on in their country. Their focus was on the opinions that are being expressed in the debate and on the standpoints underlying those opinions.

Editor in chief Pierre Spaninks presented their results at Seats2Meet Utrecht on March 23, 2015.

 

Very much as in other European countries and in the US, the number of freelancers in the Netherlands has been on the rise since the Nineties. The definition of freelancer is notoriously hard to nail down. It used to be: you either had a job or you didn’t. Today, there are many permutations on that arrangement. According to Sara Horowitz from the Freelancers Union, there is a New Workforce on the rise, comprising independent contractors, moonlighters, diversified workers, temporary workers, and freelance business owners.

The Dutch acronym ZZP stands for Zelfstandige Zonder Personeel. It defines freelancers by what they lack or rather by what they choose not to have: they are self-employed and they have no personnel other than themselves. That is why many ZZP’ers prefer to call themselves by alternative names, such as freelancer, independent professional, or simply: entrepreneur.

The only reason for our team to designate ourselves and the people we write about as ZZP’ers, is that if you do a search on Google it will return 8.5 million hits whereas Zelfstandig Professional is only good for 18.4k hits. And being journalists, we want to be found and we want to be read.

 

A turning point in the appreciation of freelancers

Relatively late compared to other European countries, the Netherlands is recovering from the financial crisis. We had a serious recession. The economy is barely crawling back now – with unemployment rates still at 9 per cent of the workforce, with wages at roughly the same level as five years ago, and with austerity programs affecting sensitive areas such as housing, healthcare and education.

The crisis now proves to have been a turning point in the appreciation of freelancers in this country. What the heck has happened?

  • Before 2008, freelancers were hailed as the bringers of innovation and flexibility: they were just what the economy needed.
  • In the early stages of the crisis, freelancers received credit for taking upon them the burden of the recession. If they had not been there to accommodate a fall in new projects and to take income losses up to 25 per cent, unemployment might well have soared into double digits.
  • Now, the economy is getting into a stage of jobless growth. On the one hand freelancers are being blamed for the destruction of steady jobs and lifetime employment. On the other hand they are commiserated as the new Precariat, because they lack a secure income, insurances and pensions.

Confused, bewildered and frustrated

This revolution in their public image baffled freelancers. They were confused, bewildered and frustrated. That is where we came in, as investigative journalists.

Last year, a collective of entrepreneurs and reporters founded a start-up company in Amsterdam. Under the name of Yournalism.nl they aimed to become a platform for investigative journalism, employing both crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to research questions from the public.

Among the very first questions that Yournalism received, were:

  • what exactly is going on in the debate on freelancers,
  • what explains the shift in public opinion,
  • what interests are being served by promoting a negative image of freelancers, and
  • is it possible to link the shift in opinion to a change in standpoint of those who voice that image?

Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing

With these questions in mind, Yournalism approached us at TPO Magazine, an online platform for news and opinions, created two years ago by independent journalists. Within days, we formed a collective to answer these questions. A research proposal was drafted, it was put up for a campaign on the Yournalism platform, and the public was invited not only to donate their money to fund the project but also to supply them with their views, opinions and questions.

The idea was that the crowdfunding would raise enough money to start our investigations and to write a report. We set a target of 5.000 euro’s, to be reached within 40 days. We hoped to supplement this seed capital by the proceeds of our publications, including a series of articles and an e-book.

Well within the assigned time, on day #27, 200 individuals had donated even more than 5.000 euro’s. In the end, 250+ sponsors including Society 3.0 brought together 6.770 euro’s. This incredible result allowed us to carry out our research plan and to draft our first reports.

Adapting the social security system

Let me just give you some short quotes illustrating the scope of our investigations and the conclusions that might be drawn from our research:

  • Yes: steady jobs and lifetime employment are on the decline. No: over all that is not a result of the rise in freelance work. The steady growth of freelance work first and foremost reflects the ambition of professionals and the opportunities that they see.
  • There is a fierce debate going on whether freelancers should be incorporated in traditional social security systems or be allowed to create their own private solutions.
  • Behind the scenes however, consensus is growing about the principles of an adapted collective system with flexible financial contributions and an opt-out for entrepreneurs.
  • There is widespread fear that the government is about to abolish tax deductions for freelancers. Freelancers with a gross annual income below 25.000 euro’s would suffer most from such a decision. However, for the time being the political divide on the Zelfstandigenaftrek seems too great and the consequences too serious for such a step to be taken on the short run.

 

 

ThePostOnline http://biz.thepostonline.nl/2015/03/23/zzpers-marktvernieuwers-marktverziekers/ has published a series of articles highlighting specific results. The full report (in Dutch) will be available as an e-book by the end of April 2015.

 

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