Social protection doesn’t mean social conformity
In recent years, the rise of platform work – where digital applications mediate between those with a need for labour and those willing to supply it – has increased attention on the gaps in social protection for the people providing such work. Platform workers are often – though not always – freelance/self-employed, which means they may not benefit from state programmes designed with those in open-ended, full-time employment contracts in mind.
Any effort to address this deficiency, however, needs to recognise that freelancers themselves are far from a homogenous group, says Romain Trébuil, CEO and co- founder of YOSS, a talent platform within the Adecco Group for freelancers and independent workers.
Trébuil explains that, “when you are freelance, you are independent,” and such thinking carries over into wishes for social protection. Guillaume Herrnberger, YOSS’s COO and Trébuil’s co-founder, agrees. “Some might want one thing, but not another,” he says. Social protection arrangements for freelancers, therefore, “have to adapt to each individual.”
Today, those individuals form a significant portion of the labour force. In 2016, there were nearly one million independent workers in France, where YOSS currently operates – an increase of 85% over the past decade. And that growth is set to continue, with the number expected to have doubled by 2020.
Adapting to each individual may mean going beyond traditional approaches. “We tend to think that social protection plans have to be regulated by a public authority, but it would be a mistake for them to build a rigid frame in which all freelancers have to participate,” says Herrnberger. “Globally, we should give such individuals autonomy to choose what they need and want.”
The private sector as a source of diversity
Governments often prefer large programmes with limited options. However, the private sector can help them to provide the sort of flexibility freelancers want while meeting their need for enhanced social protection.
YOSS – short for Your Own boSS – aims to go far beyond a simple labour marketplace and provide comprehensive services to employer and worker alike. The services for freelancers are designed to address their biggest difficulties (determined by extensive market research). These difficulties can vary markedly by country, but in France, where YOSS had its initial roll-out in 2017, the major challenges include regulatory compliance, general administration, and late payment.
Also near the top of this list of pain points is a deficiency in some areas of social protection. To address this, YOSS is working with partners to provide its French freelance clients with flexible insurance coverage that is made more affordable by the group rates YOSS can negotiate.
In providing this option, the company is still very much at the learning stage. “We need to learn what kind of solutions we can make available and how to turn something complex into a product that is simple and understandable to freelancers, who will want a lot of choice,” explains Trébuil. For example, YOSS’s health insurance needs to cover the needs of groups as distinct as taxi drivers and fashion designers.
YOSS is nevertheless making progress. Herrnberger says that, because of demand from employers and freelancers, professional indemnity insurance is now compulsory for those using YOSS. It has also launched private health insurance, which has been the subject of many inquiries from the service’s freelancers. For Herrnberger, the level of enquiries and interest underscores the potential importance of the product: some independent workers are considering YOSS even though they might be able to access coverage through the policies of spouses in open-ended, full-time employment.
Looking ahead, YOSS expects to provide its freelancers with the option to purchase unemployment or underemployment insurance, life insurance, and a private pension savings facility. Herrnberger also expects that, as YOSS enters other national markets, social protection insurance relevant to local conditions will be part of its offering. Its research in the US, for instance, where it hopes to launch soon, has identified the interest of freelancers in accessing health insurance more easily.
YOSS is also open to innovative funding arrangements. For example, in future it might enable companies and freelancers to, as part of their contracts, include an employer contribution to one or more insurance or pension policies.
Part of the bigger picture
YOSS’s efforts are not a complete social protection solution for freelancers. Nor are they an attempt to displace the state.
For some freelancers/self-employed workers, the build-up of rights and a financial safety net will be more difficult than for others. So while the specific situation will depend on the national context, YOSS – and the Adecco Group as a whole – recognises that situations could arise where vulnerable freelancers should be offered additional protection by the government. This will vary – from guidance or support services to mitigate risks through to specific, obligatory social insurance for certain groups of independent workers.
On the other hand, freelancers should in principle have the freedom to organise their own safety nets and bear the responsibility of doing so. After all, independent workers are best placed to know their own personal needs and where they will want to invest in more insurance to protect themselves.
Flexible government programmes could help here, but YOSS’s efforts show that private sector organisations can play a useful role. In doing so, they will also differentiate themselves in the growing digital talent marketplace. The result could turn assumptions on their head, with platform work creating a race to the top for social protection instead of a race to the bottom.