Better known for its iconic pier and pebbled shore, Brighton played host to a cohort of international experts on self-employment late last year

Over two days in November 2016, top global scholars and industry experts met at Brighton Business School to define the future of self-employment at the annual Global Workshop on Freelancing & Self-Employment Research.

Organised by the Centre for Research on Self-Employment (CRSE), an international think tank, and supported by IPSE, this landmark event featured cutting-edge research, with a focus on translating it into policies that support the self-employed.

These workshops were first organised in 2013, to provide a platform for researchers studying freelancing and independent working. They serve to identify gaps in existing literature and raise the profile of self-employment, on both the research and political agendas.

The CRSE was launched just twelve months ago, and in that time we have witnessed the huge impact that this pioneering venture is having on crafting effective policy recommendations. IPSE’s own influence has increased significantly as a result, as we have gained a deeper understanding of the people we represent. It plays a vital role in our ability to make evidence-based policy proposals to government and drive forward the debate in crucial areas of self-employment.

Research motivated by business practice and public policy

From the UK and Ireland, all across Europe and as far away as the USA, this year’s workshop was attended by the world’s experts on freelancing and self-employment who shared research that has been motivated and informed by real business practice and public policy. Over two days a broad range of perspectives were explored, including: motivations for being self-employed; employment status and definitions; welfare support and the role of policy and trade unions; the economic impact of the self-employed; the gig economy and wellbeing.

Despite the geographic spread of those involved and the variety of topics discussed, two key themes continued to be raised at the workshop, indicating a far-reaching global issue. The first concerned the definitions of self-employed workers. The second was the rise of the gig economy and how it is changing the nature of self-employment. These are two issues currently at the centre of UK policy debate, with Government announcing a multitude of inquiries in response. One of the most prominent is the Taylor Review of Modern Employment Practices, led by Chief Executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor.

The most pressing problems faced by policymakers in the UK, and covered by these reviews, relate to debates over “false self-employment” and vulnerable temporary contract workers. Without clear definitions of these workers there is a danger that fiscal authorities will use a broad-brush approach to the taxation and treatment of the self-employed, which will undermine genuine, professional self-employment. Likewise, attempts to give self-employed people rights equivalent to employees will weaken the value that the more highly skilled independent professionals generate in the economy.

A special guest at the workshop this year was Rebecca Seeley Harris from the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS). She spoke directly to attendees to provide an overview of the priorities of the OTS, ensuring that the CRSE maintains a demand-driven research agenda.

Rebecca commented: “It was a very pertinent time to be attending the workshop as there is much focus on this area in government and across the board at present. When we carry out reviews in the OTS we are reliant on existing research, which does not always give us the information we are looking for. Discussing a more targeted approach with many of the researchers will help us a great deal.”

Defining the future of self-employment

Central to the CRSE’s mission is to produce research that will inform policy. To that end, the CRSE launched a new research project at this year’s workshop. This will look at the segmentation of the UK self-employed workforce, and will address the problems that have resulted from the gig economy and the homogeneous categorisation of self-employment. The report will distinguish between the different types of self-employment by creating a framework based on legal parameters, personal motivations and aspects of work.

Providing clarity on the make-up of the self-employed will enable a differentiated policy approach, one that recognises this group has varied segments and needs. Support can then be appropriately tailored, whether it to be to the more vulnerable or the more highly skilled.

It’s a huge task, and one that hasn’t been undertaken to this degree before. And though it might not solve all of the problems, we are confident it will go a significant way toward bettering public policy on self-employment in the UK.

You can follow the progress of the segmentation project as well as CRSE publications and videos from the workshop at www.crse.co.uk

With thanks to Brighton Business School for hosting the event and the presenters at the 2016 Global Workshop on Freelancing & Self-Employment Research:

Alex Metcalfe, Federation of Small Businesses, UK 
Ana Millán, University of Córdoba, Spain
André van Stel, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and Kozminski University, Poland
Andrew Burke, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Anne Annink, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands
Arjen van Witteloostuijn, Tilburg University, Netherlands
David Cross, University of Bath, UK 
Dieter Bögenhold, Alpen-Adria-University Klagenfurt, Austria
Ekaterina Nemkova, University of Nottingham, UK 
Erika Watson, Prowess, UK
Jerzy Cieślik, Kozminski University, Poland 
John Kitching, Kingston University, UK 
Marcus Dejardin, University of Namur and Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium 
Martin Lukeš, University of Economics, Prague
Mike Ribeiro, Middlesex University, UK
Nardo de Vries, Maastricht University, Netherlands
Pascale Peters, Radboud University, Netherlands
Patricia Leighton, IPAG Business School, France and University of South Wales, UK
Peter van der Zwan, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands 
Philip Ross, Great DIGITAL Company, UK
Raquel Justo, University of Huelva, Spain 
Simon Best, Middlesex University, UK
Terri Griffith, Santa Clara University, USA

This article was written by IPSE Research Manager, Kayte Jenkins, and originally appeared in IPSE Magazine issue 59.