The first Freelance Summit was held on Friday, February 3 in Toronto at Metropolitan University. Participants discussed the crippling erosion of freelance worker well-being in Canada–and if working together was part of the answer.
The number of freelancers is growing. But are freelance unions growing? If not, why not? And what would happen if freelance unions worked together?
Freelance writer Toni Main (not their real name) landed a new $6,000 gig. There was no formal contract–just a series of emails and mutual trust about what was expected, what they would deliver and how much they would make. Several months later, Main remained unpaid. As a last resort, they turned to the Canadian Freelance Union for help.
“And that’s why we’re here, says” Nora Loreto, new President of the Canadian Freelance Union (CFU), a local of Unifor, founded in 2006 by the Communications, Energy, Paperworkers Union (CEP). “It’s also what I like most about what we do. When someone has a grievance, been harassed, or strung along by a contractor, we get involved. We use a variety of tactics to get justice for our members. And we have not failed yet.”
CFU, like other unions in the media and communication space also provide members with health care insurance options, training opportunities, contract negotiation support and press cards.
Yet, despite the benefits of joining a union and increased number of freelancers due to ongoing tsunami waves of layoffs in the media sector, including Postmedia’s recent move to cut 11 per cent of its editorial staff, CFU freelance union membership numbers (200) seem surprisingly low.
Loreto says part of the reason is that there many freelance media/communication professionals unions out there, like the Canadian Writer’s Union (1,600 members), The Canadian Freelance Guild (340 members), the Communications Workers of Canada (6,000 members due largely to CBC worker memberships) and CFU’s parent union, Unifor Media Council (8,000) to name a few.
Ultimately, this fragments both membership and power. There is also the out of pocket cost issue ($125–150 per year per union) and member churn; if someone gets a job, they leave.
Other reasons include the fact that the majority of Canada’s 2.8 million (15 per cent of the labour force) contractor workers and self-employed founders, are largely under informed about the existence and benefits of freelance unions and the value of collective bargaining.
However, Loreto is optimistic that will change.
Recently, Loreto co-organized a hybrid freelancer summit in Toronto at Metropolitan University. Approximately 20+ people representing a variety of organizations — or themselves — attended the event, which took place February 3.
One of them was Chris Katsarov Luna, freelance photojournalist and founding member of the freelance union United Photojournalists of Canada. Luna says many photojournalists have recently found themselves pink-slipped due to tight budgets and then re-hired on contract terms, an arrangement that saves the company up to 25 per cent per person in staff costs.
“Some (people) think freelancing is great, but most of us are not in the least bit interested in being self-employed and would prefer a regular, waged position with benefits,” says Luna.
This includes soft benefits too, like corporate discounts for gym memberships, and other “soft” benefits not extended to contractors.
Luna felt the freelance summit meeting was very productive and believes collaboration can power up and bring more negotiating power to their members.
Freelancers growing in number
Contract workers, solopreneurs and self-employed founders (freelancers) remain the fastest growing segment of the Canadian labour force. Surveys done by Statistics Canada shows the top reason for going freelance was freedom, followed by the inability to find suitable employment. Women freelancers also cite escaping workplace discrimination, harassment and corporate glass cages as key reasons for exiting traditional employment. Although the number of people employed as freelancers dipped slightly in 2021, Upwork, a U.S. based, global freelance platform with more than 14 million users, anticipates freelancers will represent over 50 per cent of the U.S. workforce in the U.S. by 2027. A 2023 study by MBO Partners, a U.S. based independent worker management company, shows the number of American freelancers increased by 26 per cent in 2022. Experts predict similar growth trends in Canada, especially as companies begin to insist on a return to the office, a condition some workers now balk at.
The pay gap
Freelancing is tough for all, but especially women and other marginalized groups.
While income data varies by industry, age and province, the majority of freelancer workers are barely keeping their heads above water. In 2020, Canadian male freelancers earned on average $45,600, while women working in the same field made just $34, 400–a 24 per cent gender-based wage gap. Thus, average freelancer incomes barely exceed Canada’s current poverty line ( $37, 542). When we further compare the gender pay gap in the freelance space to the waged employment space, recent OECD data shows the pay gap for women freelancers is a whopping 40 percent higher than that experienced by women in the waged sector. The more intersectionalities you add in, the wider this income gap gets– available studies also show racialized people, single parents, and recent immigrants are over represented in the freelance and self-employment space, and even more likely to struggle financially than their white counterparts, and black freelancers often face discrimination in online hiring platforms.
Being a freelancer is clearly a tough hustle at the best of times, but with rampant inflation, no paid leave or access to subsidized health or dental plans, and chronically late pay cheques– studies show 29 per cent of freelance invoices are paid late– it’s getting harder and harder for freelancers to make ends meet. This is again, especially true if you’re a woman– while male freelancers are paid late 24 per cent of the time, female freelancers are waiting on a payment that’s “in the mail” 31 per cent of the time.
Are Entrepreneurs Freelancers too?
Anyone who works independently, without a formal salary, according to Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) essentially self-employed aka a freelancer — and this includes consultants, contractors, and includes self-employed entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs are commonly viewed as people building the next Facebook. But the fact is, 55 per cent of all incorporated businesses are enterprises with just 1–4 employees. micro enterprises–the vast majority of which solopreneur enterprises. However, a search of start-up and growth programs (such as Startup Canada and Futurpreneur) shows no mention of unions and how solopreneurs founders might benefit by joining. Instead, solopreneurs default lawyers to help with contract disputes or harassment claims.
Given that even a simple “cease and desist letter” or taking legal action to get paid can run into the thousands, many solopreneurs across industries increasingly realize they have a lot in common with freelancers when it comes to living with precarity, vulnerability and accessing basic worker rights. Nancy Wilson, founder and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, says their members, many of whom were hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, are increasingly looking to the government for answers to systemic self-employment related exploitation issues felt more acutely now than ever before.
“Anyone fighting to change the system can learn a lot from the labour movement. We deliberately reached out to the Canadian Freelance Union and the Canadian Labour Congress to join our advocacy alliance for self-employed individuals,” Wilson says.
Loreto says the February Freelancer Summit meeting was the first in a series of meetings planned for cities across Canada over the next year.
We would like to have a national forum or roundtable for freelance advocacy groups — not creating a new organization — just bringing people together in the organizations they are already in,”Loreto says.
“There is a growing realization that “Everything about the economy is networked, and if we want to build a new economy, then the networks that we build have to be different,” she adds.,
In the meantime, Loreto says contractors and solopreneurs would be wise to research and consider a union card.
“We can help make visible (the) invisible work and highlight the challenges we face to governments to ensure freelancers, the so-called ‘precariat’, are not left behind for long,”she says.
For more information about upcoming meetings, visit https://www.canadianfreelanceunion.ca/. All are welcome, and women solopreneurs and micro enterprise founders are encouraged to participate.