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Safety and the self-employed

Self-employment is on the rise in our country, especiallyamong high-injury occupations like construction, agriculture, andtransportation. In fact, self-employment is the second fastest growingemployment demographic in Canada, with approximately 16 per cent of 17 millionworkers in Canada freelancing for their income.

The problem is that while self-employment is rising, safetyawareness for this group of Canadians is not.

Health and safety training often happens within thetraditional workplace setting. Safety committees are set up, policies are setin place and safety training is usually mandatory. But what about the largegroup of people—such as the self-employed—who work outside the traditionalworkplace where safety measures are not monitored as closely? Shouldn’t Canadabe concerned for its growing self-employment population?

The Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS) is concerned.They’ve been studying the rise of self-employment for some time now,particularly as it relates to the construction industry. Katherine Jacobs,director of research and analysis with the OCS, states, “According toStatistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, self-employment in Ontario’sconstruction industry has increased from 75,000 workers in 1987 to 130,000 in2006. Not only are we seeing an increasing number of self-employed workers inconstruction, but their share of total construction employment is alsoincreasing. Almost 20 years ago, 25 per cent of the construction workforce wereself-employed. Today, one-third of construction workers declare themselves tobe self-employed.”

Unfortunately, the OCS’s main concern doesn’t go far enough.Their primary concern is that these construction workers may be self-employedfor nefarious reasons such as income concealment and tax evasion. The OCS doesacknowledge the health and safety deficit among this group when they suggestthat workplace insurance premiums should apply to these workers.

While there is no doubt that public policy and industry shouldaddress the proliferation of non-legitimate businesses that seek to avoidpaying into the public purse, shouldn’t we as a country be more concerned aboutwhether this group is at greater risk because of their self-employment?

There is a global movement afoot to establish organizationsfor self-employed workers, which may, if effective, promote their wellbeing andpromote accountability. Because these workers do not fit into the traditional“workplace box,” it has become necessary to develop institutions that recognizethe unique nature of self-employment in an attempt to bring traditionalworkplace benefits to its doorstep. And many are succeeding.

Take for example a number of the European trade unions thathave started associations for the self-employed. FNV Bondgenoten of theNetherlands is targeting 15,000 micro-businesses and hopes to have 130,000workers within 10 years. A Norwegian finance service union has established Rom,a separate non-profit organization that offers legal advice, training, discountson services, as well as mentors who provide one-on-one career advice.

In the U.S., Sarah Horowitz started the Freelancers Unionwhen she discovered that many self-employed people in New York did not haveaccess to affordable health care. Her organization now boasts a membership ofmore than 15,000.

Canada is beginning to do its part as well. Recently, theChristian Labour Association of Canada, an independent labour union, launchedthe Guild Network, an association that allows self-employed workers to leveragethe services of a union, without actually becoming part of one.

The Guild Network is the first of itskind in Canada and offers discounted health benefits, employment advice, a jobboard, online discussion forum, training, and discounts on services such as taxpreparation and car rentals. It’s motivated by the value of work community — acommunity of like-minded people who cherish their independence but who seek thebenefits of togetherness. The hope is that through the building of community,self-employed people will begin to communicate about the necessity of standardswithin their occupational group. The standards may be as simple as healthbenefit plans, or it could be standards regarding professionalism, accreditation,and the safety of its group of workers.

When close to one in six workers is off the health andsafety radar of government and industry, this is cause for concern. As with anyissue, a concerted approach by all interested parties is required to address itmeaningfully— government, industry, workers, and unions have a role to play.

In Canada, the Guild Network is doing its part to encouragefreelancers in all sectors to come together and reap the benefits of theirlarge numbers in the hope that it can help address issues that affect thisgroup, including their health and safety.

Chris Bosch is a field researcher with the Christian LabourAssociation of Canada, an independent, multi-sector trade union.

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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