Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 20/12/2015

Accomplishment, income, freedom: freelancers' misleading motivations and relationship with work

Whether they are a self-employed graphic designers or web designer, an Uber driver trying to make ends meet, a crowdworker working alone from home or an employee producing and selling crafts on Etsy in their spare time, digital economy freelancers share a specific relationship to work.

According to a European study carried out by the EFIP (European Forum of Independent Professionals), which is based on Eurostat data, the reasons for choosing self-employment in decreasing order are: the need for independence and personal growth (69%), flexible working schedules (35%) followed by income prospects (20%), with strong variations from one country to another. The study also underlines two other factors which lead to a change from salaried work to self-employment: dissatisfaction with a previous job (56%) and having a new business idea (85%). The thirty-five interviews carried out with self-employed workers by in nine countries provide more clarification, showing the rejection of the status of employee, which is associated with boredom and low self-esteem, and the need to return to a job which better matches their skillset, rather than managerial roles or even the strong desire for independence.

Beyond the 35 hour work week

According to INSEE figures from 2012, French self-employed workers (excluding those who operate as "auto-entrepreneurs", a status which allows self-employed workers who earn under a certain amount to pay lower social contributions) are mainly found in retail and craft work, human health, social work, business services and, to a lesser extent, private services excluding health and construction work. Auto-entrepreneurs, who represent a quarter of the non-salaried population, work mainly in non-store retail, specialised fields such as design and translation, but also in teaching, personal services, administrative and support services, art, entertainment and recreational activities, as well as information and communication.

Whether they register under the micro-enterprise or auto-entrepreneur scheme, they share the same characteristics. They work for several clients or companies, and between 12 and 17% of them have several different jobs. For auto-entrepreneurs four in ten carry out their non-salaried work alongside a salaried job. They are known as slashers, in reference to the "/" key on the keyboard, and they account for 2.3 million people in France according to the Employment Centre. All of these self-employed workers work in order to satisfy their need for independence and intellectual or personal satisfaction. However, those who start up their business often choose to become self-employed due to a lack of salaried work in their sector, such as photographers, graphic designers or web designers. Overall, these freelancers often work over 35 hours per week. According to INSERM, 45% of them work a total of 50 hours a week, and they more often work on Saturdays and Sundays. They are also more sensitive to stress and burnout. This is particularly the case for slashers, who use their evenings, weekends and holidays to work on their secondary activity, which tends to blur the boundary between the life of an employee and self-employed worker on one side, and the personal and professional life on the other.

From partner to para-subordinate

This carefully chosen and non-imposed multi-activity seems relatively comfortable, however, when compared to another category of digital freelancers known as "para-subordinates". This emerging phenomenon sky-rocketed in France following the launch of the auto-entrepreneur status in 2009, and is strongly linked to the development of the collaborative economy. By working exclusively with a platform, self-employed workers who are not looking for a supplement to their income but rather a real job are placed in a position of subordination similar to that of an employee, only able to work for a single company.
The example of Uber drivers is particularly representative of these new working relationships. The company's main argument is to offer its "partner drivers" flexibility and the ability to work at their own convenience. According to a study carried out by Uber X on its American drivers, the majority have a university degree and 80% previously worked full or part-time. They are mainly motivated by higher earnings than their previous jobs, by independence (being their own boss) and freedom (scheduling their own day); this allows a better balance between work and time spent with family, while maintaining a regular income. In France, where more than 10,000 drivers work for Uber, many are young men who use the platform as a genuine solution when faced with a busy and discriminatory job market. At this level, the argument based on flexibility holds no water. The Association Solidaire De Chauffeurs Indépendants VTC explains that the majority of self-employed drivers in France must work between 12 and 15 hours a day and juggle several applications to be able to earn €1,500 net per month.

Whilst Uber extols its drivers' freedom, they are actually subjected to the company's algorithm which encourages them to drive in less common areas and offers journeys based on demand. In a recent study, Alex Rosenblat, researcher at the Data & Society Research Center at New York University, reveals that Uber drivers are, in reality, not their own boss. Because the software knows all journeys as well as drivers' locations, their work schedule and their score (from customers), it has unbalanced access to information and directly manipulates the work offer. This algorithm decides when and how "Uber partners" must work. It can also "punish" drivers if they reject low-profit journeys. If they fall below a 90% journey acceptance rate, the drivers can be put on a waiting list, with no journey offers, for at least 24 hours (source ). Finally, there is no moderation of the scoring system, so a slightly low score can lead to a reduction in activity or even removal if their score goes below the threshold of 4.6 out of 5.

Crowdworker and free?

Even more in the minority is crowdsourcing work, which has only just started up in France, and also reveals new relationships with work. As with the slashers, the unity between time and the workplace disappears: a freelancer can be contracted at any time and for as long as desired. One of the arguments of the French crowdsourcing platform FouleFactory is that it allows its contributors to work while travelling or in a queue as if it were a paid pastime. Crowdworkers often find it difficult to explain their job and to find real meaning in what they do. Unlike structured work at a company, crowdworking is a job without a workplace, without colleagues and without any other relationship other than money from the platform. The work itself consists of a succession of micro-tasks which are disconnected from their context, preventing the crowdworker from identifying themselves with a specific job. The Identity and Self-Organization in Unstructured Work study carried out by Vili Lehdonvirta and Paul Mezier shows that, to make up for this lack of direction, they distance themselves from the work, presenting it as temporary, or avoiding the disconnected aspect of the job by associating it with self-employment. Others use the paid pastime aspect or fluid nature of the work to allow them to be free from a schedule and to spend time on other activities. Finally, we note a trend in the socialisation of crowdworkers, who gather on Facebook forums or IRC-type chatrooms to exchange tips and create an online presence.


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