Conen and Schippers (eds) Self-Employment as Precarious Work

Wieteke Conen and Joop Schippers (eds) Self-Employment as Precarious Work: A European Perspective, Edward Elgar, 2019, xi+ 273 pp, 1 7881 502 5, hbk, £95

This book is the result of a research project on self-employment across Europe co-ordinated by research institutes in the Netherlands and Germany and undertaken by researchers from Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, and the UK.

The editors’ introductory chapter offers first of all a historical perspective, pointing out that self-employment was common among craftspeople, farmers, tradesmen and professionals throughout the nineteenth century, and that although decline in the number of self-employed individuals set in during the twentieth century as technological change led to capital-intensive production and large employed workforces, the status and rewards attached to self-employment remained high. The twenty-first century has seen further technological change, and an increase in involuntary and precarious self-employment that will often share characteristics with employment. The aim of the authors of this edited collection is to fill knowledge gaps, particularly in relation to the increasing precarity of self-employment, and the relationship between precarious self-employed workers and social protection measures.

The editors define precarious work as ‘an employment situation in which individuals or households are unable to fulfil fundamental physiological and security needs while working’ (p. 5), and the three most significant aspects of precariousness are found to be income inadequacy and insecurity, a lack of adequate social benefits and regulatory protections, and uncertainty as to whether paid work will continue (p. 6). It is no surprise to find that the UK is characterised as providing self-employed individuals with a ‘patchwork of medium to low access’ (p. 12) to social insurance benefits.

The first part of the book explores a number of issues related to precarious self-employment. Chapter 2 explores the reasons for increasing labour market flexibility, the related increase in self-employment, the loss of traditional self-employment, the rise of involuntary self-employment, the ways in which technological change is changing the sectors in which self-employment is more likely to be found, differing regulations relating to self-employment across Europe, gender aspects of precarious self-employment, income insecurity, such social risks as an inability to save for a pension, and the difficulty of maintaining skill levels in a context of rapidly changing technology. A brief third chapter studies the use of such concepts as ‘worker’, ‘self-employed’, ‘dependent self-employed’, and ‘false self-employed’ in EU legislation, and finds ambiguity and complexity. Chapter 4 finds that the precariously self-employed risk poverty in old age.

The second section of the book contains the results of research on a variety of European countries: the UK, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden; and also on older self-employed workers in Europe. Of particular interest to readers of this website and Newsletter will be the chapter on the UK by Nigel Meager. In the UK, more than 15 per cent of the employed workforce is self-employed, the proportion continues to grow, and that trend is affecting increasing numbers of occupations. A particularly significant aspect of the UK experience of self-employment is the ‘gig’ economy: work facilitated through online platforms, and which locates workers on the employed/self-employed boundary. Meager reviews the recent history of self-employment in the UK, and reviews research literature, and finds that in the UK the self-employed suffer long hours, low pay, and low skills development. Of particular interest is the finding that since 2000 there is no correlation between the UK’s economic situation and the constant upward trend in the number of self-employed workers; and the rather different finding that the post-recession increase in self-employment has been mainly female in composition, which was not the case before the recession. A further interesting finding is that job satisfaction among the self-employed is on average higher than among the employed, but that since 2006 self-employment job satisfaction has deteriorated. Meager concludes that challenges for policymakers include ‘low pay, insecurity, low levels of social protection (including, particularly, pensions), and low levels of training and human capital development’ (p. 82).

The third section of the book addresses some Europe-wide concerns related to self-employment. Chapter 12 studies trade union and other organised representation of different categories of self-employed workers; and chapter 13 asks about social protection, and particularly pensions; discusses how social insurance systems might be adapted to be more useful to self-employed workers; and explores the possibility of EU coordination in this area. A final chapter reviews the conclusions of the different chapters, and proposes a research agenda, particularly in relation to social protection.

This is an important book because it is based on high quality research related to a significant and increasingly important issue of clear relevance to millions of people across Europe. We would urge the researchers to continue with their research, and in particular to study the variety of methods that could be employed to reduce the income insecurity experienced by self-employed workers, and particularly by those at the more precarious end of the spectrum. We would of course be happy to assist.