Treat Freelancers Right

In my decade of working, I’ve had one full-time job; in an actual office, 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, with my own desk and everything. The rest of my work has been part-time or freelance. Freelancing has meant flexibility and excitement as well as uncertainty and stress. Bouncing around from project to project has shown me so many different modes of freelancing, as well as the good and bad ways employers and clients see and treat freelancers.

Recently, I was invited to be a pitcher at an event hosted by The G-Blog and the British High Commission, on the theme of “Equality in the Workplace.” As a freelancer, “workplace” is not singular; it is decentralized and can be non-traditional and informal, often times divorced from organizational structures and the protections that come along with that. So what then can and should equality mean for freelancers?

My pitch was formulated based on my experiences in specific fields (arts administration, publishing, and NGO/non-profit) and those of freelancing friends in other creative industries. Freelancing as a mode of working is growing more popular across all sorts of industries — in August 2017, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) reported that freelancers now made up one-third of Malaysia’s workforce. The sharing or gig economy has opened up all sorts of freelance income opportunities through things like Grab, Uber, AirBnB, etc. So the freelancing landscape is vast. Work equality is also a huge consideration that covers so many issues: wage disparity between men and women

Here, I want to focus on small organizational steps and tweaks for mindset changes for those with the power to influence hiring and funding decisions, as well as how we freelancers can extend solidarity, knowledge, and resources laterally to each other to strengthen our power as a workFORCE.

  1. Explore the concept of “maximum productivity” and “maximum value”

Discussing labor and equality necessitates talking about power and exploitation. In a capitalist world, “productivity” and how much profit you can make for yourself or others is your highest value. With freelancing, some clients/employers think once the price is paid (or even just agreed on!) for a service, the freelancer is obliged to deliver it entirely according to the client’s/employer’s demands. This can result in shifting timelines, bad communications, unrealistic expectations, high pressure, punishments in the form of reduced or late pay reduced quality of work, and even negative health effects.

An obvious thing that is often forgotten is that all workers, freelancers included, are people with needs and rights. They are not vending machines — no worker is! So uncoupling from “maximum productivity” as a standard that should or can even be reached is a step towards equality.

This uncoupling includes adhering to work hours and professional communication channels; please don’t WhatsApp someone you work with at 9 pm on a Saturday to ask them to get you something by 8 am Monday, you know that’s unrealistic and unfair. Have a timeline for the output you’re requesting or the project you’re hiring people for that’s negotiated and finalized at the start of the job. Make it clear, flexible, and adaptable to the best of your ability. Schedule time to review it along the way. Provide documentation and contracts that outline expectations, commitments, and deliverables of both parties — this protects everyone! Manage your time well; know how your company and business works well enough so that you don’t set unrealistic goals and deadlines. Always, ALWAYS plan for sick days and emergencies!

Now, maybe you hear that and think, this noob doesn’t understand how fast-paced my industry is, this millennial snowflake wants everything easy.

There’s nothing wrong with working to get more ease in our working lives and everything to be gained from trying to build better ways of working. Clear shared goals, consistent open communication, and an understanding of everyone’s humanity, is — I believe — a step towards realized equality and towards elevating us all beyond our worth as productive profit-makers. The rest of the steps are based on this belief and asks clients/employers to stretch themselves and the power they have to think of the needs and rights of their workers, which includes freelancers.

  1. Know what the work is worth, and pay up

So much of my freelancing experience and those of my colleagues involves stressing out about money. There’s the stress of negotiating competitive rates for your work so you can have a living wage, and of holding employers and clients accountable to their promises; this includes pushing for clear terms of employment, timelines and expectations, a reasonable payment timeframe. These stressors often overshadow actually doing your work and doing it well.

When employment is distilled into a pure transaction it can exclude acknowledging freelancers as equal members of the general workforce and as equal employees of a business or company, worthy of competitive and commensurate salary, employee protections, and talent development. Many jobs available to freelancers are treated like auction items, but it’s the lowest bidder who wins. This system can lead to exploitation and wage inequality for freelancers as a group.

Knowing what the work you want to solicit is worth involves knowing the landscape of not just your industry but adjacent industries that you interact with. Maybe you’re a legal firm and every year you produce an annual report that requires outsourcing to writers, editors, graphic designers, printers. Maybe you’re an online clothing store and you want to hire a copywriter and a voice talent to produce a radio advertisement for your business. Do some research: know your budget inside and out, find out more about the costs and rates for your request, and the different parts of the process involved (even if you hire someone else to handle it). This can be discussed with freelancers but do be prepared to meet them halfway with your own research.

Data from previous experiences with freelancers can also be compiled into a freelancer payment structure that is fair, comprehensive and suited to your budget. Set a standard based on all the information at your disposal and work to equalize any gaps you can see. Pay men and women the same for the same work, pay people of different ethnicities the same for the same work, and so on.

  1. Develop standards of procedure for hiring, communications, and payment

Some of the feedback to my pitch came from women who had built their own companies from the ground up, who started as freelancers themselves. They were shocked to hear of my work experiences that had no contracts, clear timelines, or protocols. But that’s the thing, freelancers work with and for a huge range of clients. Some of them may be established companies with hundreds of employees, or startups with five employees, or a single business owner. Not everyone will have the same standards and processes in place.

Most of these processes have been covered previously and so this is just a super basic plea for professionalism and organization. Arrangements can be as flexible or as casual as the project/freelancer/client/employer needs or wants it to be, but backing that up with documentation on professional communication channels and with well-articulated expectations can ensure smoother workflows and better protections for everyone involved.

  1. Proactively expand your network and hire diversely

I’ve seen clients/employers going to the same well for the same services, or not maintaining a contacts database and hiring freelancers ad-hoc and at random. I’ve fallen into the same trap a few times, recommending the same people and not keeping my contacts up to date. Here are questions that clients, employers, and freelancers alike can ask ourselves:

  1. What are my recruitment and referral systems?
  2. Do I have a hiring process that applies to multiple types of employees?
  3. What are my hiring blind spots — Ethnicity? Gender? Age? Education? Language?
  4. Am I seeing the same type of work repeatedly?
  5. Am I meeting enough new people and learning new things?
  6. How am I sharing my knowledge and resources?
  7. Does your business or company have space for a networking session for the freelancers you’ve worked with?
  8. Is there capacity to include them in any training and development schemes?

Many of us are not taught to allocate time in our work lives to educate and engage with other workers outside of profit and power-oriented goals, and this limits growth. Investing in talent — be it organizing events or training to attract new people, or developing long-term relationships with freelancers through multiple projects and roles — is like fertilizing the soil.

What’s been immensely helpful for me, personally, has been transparency with other freelancers. In a decentralized work structure, building as many bridges as we can keep us all more connected and thriving. We, freelancers, get to talk about money much more freely than those who are employed in more formal settings, and that’s an advantage. Share your knowledge, your network, address your own blind spots, and give solidarity to fellow freelancers.

Cultivating your corner of the field or industry you’re in will benefit you in the long run but more importantly, it benefits the work you do. Helping other freelancers charge what they’re worth, avoid exploitation, cut ties with toxic clients, and cultivate their own protocols and systems for efficiency and balance keeps the scene healthy because those practices need to propagate and we need to propagate them outside of a centralized work structure.

Equality can seem like an abstract concept. Zooming into the granular details of our daily and common work interactions can help normalize equality as an active practice, instead of just a noun.

This piece was originally published on Wait a Minute Now 



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