Freewheeling at freelance jobs: Some experiments and ideas

Freewheeling at freelance jobs: Some experiments and ideas

Even though isolated by the immediate circumstances of work, each so-called freelancer stands in affinity with other so-called freelancers, whether she realises it or not, and this affinity already provides the basis for the collective self-organizing that a lot of so-called freelancers are seeking.

This is a two part essay in which experience from working with online academic writing and editing agencies has been brought to understand how a large number of trained professionals are becoming workers, and what it means. The first part presents an image of what worker-capital tensions look like in such a scenario, while the second part takes up some broader questions that arise from this situation.

I.

For the last three years, I have scrounged for work off the internet. Before that, I was at the university, where I realised the competition over knowledge-production and the networking over professional relations weren’t really my forte or interest after a few years of paddling. Despite the uncertainties of finding work on a piece-rate basis or the dull isolation of a work-from-home environment, so-called freelance jobs off the internet keep afloat a rather large section among the technical and language proficient literates in the world, particularly those who are finding it difficult to get traditional (or not so traditional) “full-time” jobs. These “part-time” jobs can extend from editing and content creation to translation to data-entry to software and design development, handling customer care for companies, and so on. There is nothing that essentially distinguishes these jobs from others, say walking dogs or baby-sitting or delivering things home, except that I’m talking essentially of jobs which are done over the internet on a piece-rate basis. In my case, these were specifically related to academic editing and academic writing.

The immediate reason why I looked for freelance jobs after university is that I had begun helping in a loose collective which printed and distributed a newspaper among wage-workers, Andrew needed to have time enough on my hands to do this. During this time, the engagement with factory workers helped acquire a language in which it became possible to understand what is happening in the world, and that raised to me questions about the work I was doing. So far, I’d made some attempts at answering these that were rather limited and reactive. Here, I am going to try to discuss in some more depth the dynamics of so-called freelance work. The point is not to describe job conditions, but to see the experience in light of affinity between workers and a wider critique of production today.

In framing these investigations, I found a lot of help in narratives that others had posted online. Some of it is based on discussions I’ve had with friends about their experiences with freelance work. Reviews on forums like Glassdoor are a mine for discussions. This, in a manner, indicates already the message I’d like to convey: even though isolated by the immediate circumstances of work, each so-called freelancer stands in affinity with other so-called freelancers, whether she realises it or not, and this affinity already provides the basis for the collective self-organizing that a lot of so-called freelancers are seeking.

“Freelance” - A misnomer

Quote:
“This scenario seems like an upgraded version of the employment structures from 100 years ago. Workers would go to a hiring hall in the morning, bringing with them their own tools and work clothes, and hope to be picked for a job. They competed with all the other workers in the hall.”
From “Self-Employment, or the Illusion of Freedom”

The term “freelancer” swallows up a number of different kinds of employment, and throws on them some dubious misconceptions. For example, a freelance journalist suggests to many a person who is their own boss (even when forced to sell their produce to this or that news agency). Freelance professionals such as architects, doctors, tutors, accountants, barbers, glaziers, and others have for long worked in a similar environment – bossed not by a management on top, but by the very sea of market itself. Most of what is referred to as freelance work today is not work of this kind at all, as Monika argues through her own experiences. Even though the nature of the contract calls you a freelancer, it invariably expects you to work in a setup with a top management, a supervisory team, and a large number of others doing work similar to yourself. Anybody who has tried their hand at freelancer-to-client websites like Upwork or Freelancer will know the waste of time it causes having you bid for projects, prove your worth, etc. And they still charge a fee for themselves. The so-called freelancer is thus no more than a piece-rate worker.

Piece-rate is the nature of the work done by the so-called freelancer. However, these piece-rate agencies are often an extension of larger industries such as education, entertainment, sales, art, fashion, or coding. Most of the work I have done – academic writing and editing – has been for university students and teachers. In most cases, it has been work that I would do as if I were a student at the university; and yet, I was not. For example, my first job was at an agency called Cactus Communications which was structured like a university: there were departments of various disciplines, and each department had a chief supervisor, assistant supervisors, and editors like me who would edit manuscripts of papers or books. Most of the work came from professors from countries where the spread of universities has outpaced English instruction. Editing agencies such as these have developed elaborate tests for recruitment, teaching modules for training, and guidelines for assessing/supervising work. The chain of academic work begins from the university and goes all the way down to the piece-rate editor or writer. Thus, work that was earlier done by the scholar herself, or their peers in the fraternity or juniors in the hierarchy, is now an established industrial extension of the university.

I was fired from Cactus because after three months, they were unwilling to take the few mistakes that I assumed any editor would be allowed to make in assignments. The chief supervisor sent me a stern teacherly mail telling me why I was fired. In my third month, when I had kind of settled with the format, I was making a quarter of this chief supervisor’s salary by just working about 15 days a month (3hrs/day approx). This was after completing about twenty assignments. At the end of the month, we’d get a monthly report of the department in which some bloke had managed to complete some 400 assignments, while the number of underperformers removed was also mentioned (and the nature of their inadequacies). However, I had received really nuanced training in the English UK and English US idioms and editing rules out of training for Cactus, which came handy later on. What struck me about working at Cactus was that if I was fired within three months for not adhering to their no-mistakes policy, were there other editors who were doing such flawless editing that not even a single article was misplaced or missing from the paper? Or was it that my mistakes were merely a pivot for the company to fire me from because they had over-recruited and did not need more editors on their system? In the course of years, I found that these two tactics went hand in hand in the piece-rate business. I had gone on to write to a number of publishing houses, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Orient Longman, Pan Macmillan, etc., who got documents edited out of me as a test for giving more work later (but which they never did). Most of these publishers “failed” me, pointing out my mistakes, only to approach me again after a while to work on a pittance.

Work at will?

The one seeming difference that this setup has with a classical factory system is that production quotas are relatively relaxed for each individual worker. Doing the work requires the so-called freelancer to “accept” each new assignment based on reviewing its requirements and deadlines. But this has more to do with the nature of the “production line” -- seen in its wider university context – than with any discerning quality of the work itself. One of the major reasons behind this is that for the online piece-rate worker, the machine they work with is their own; its ownership becomes a condition for the exploitation of their labour. Not only must the workers’ fees cover his own expenses, but also those of the machines on which to work, whether rented or bought. In fact, even in a broader sense, even though online piece-rate worker can accept or reject assignments based on “choice,” she has to work enough in order to make wages that will sustain her. So much for working at will.

However, it is not the nature of work that allows the so-called freelancer to exercise her will, but how she can tweak it to her own purposes. Educrusade, an academic writing agency, is run by a team consisting of a managing director, a person in-charge of HR and accounts duties, and three supervisors. They recruit writers based upon fields of expertise (the same university division), only to get these writers to write whatever form of assignment they receive from clients, university teachers or students. Despite my having stated that I have studied Psychology and Literature, I have till date written papers for students of universities around the world on topics ranging from nursing to social work to automobile technology to economics to mathematics to journalism to sociology to biology and many more. The paper must be in a typical university format, based upon the structure and instructions provided by the client. The payment is fixed at a rate, and only made for the number of words in the main body. That is, contents, appendices, and reference lists are not paid for. Moreover, the client can demand “rework,” officially till about 2 months after an assignment is done, if they are not satisfied with the quality.

Initially, right after I was fired from Cactus, I was getting enough work from Educrusade which paid for my rent and regular home-cooked food, the occasional purchase of clothes and eating out. After about half a year, I asked for a raise which allowed me a bit of savings as well. But due to the constant frictions that arose at work, they decided they needed to up their bargaining game, and hired new writers. After that, I received much less work which did not even amount enough to pay for my rent. Everytime there was a confrontation with the agency over work – mostly about refusal to do rework and delay in submissions – there was a period of seven to ten days afterwards for which the agency stopped sending work, hoping to teach the writer a lesson. By hiring new writers (at little extra cost, because everything is on email), they hoped to increase their ability to do so. For a writer, it was necessary at such times to hold their ground, or risk giving in to the agency’s demands. Asking for work only shows the desperation a writer is in.

But it seemed like the agency was having similar problems even with the new writers they had hired. After the new recruitments were done, I knew I wouldn’t get jobs because of the fuss I had created. But I started receiving work much sooner than anticipated; and when frictions arose even now, the agency seemed much less willing to be on the offensive, despite having a renewed lot of writers to whom they could give assignments. It seemed that the new writers must be responding in a manner similar to the older ones already.

When Educrusade was hiring new writers, a friend was in need of some additional income, and I told him these guys were hiring. He passed the tests and began writing for them. However, his requirement was perhaps not too much, so I asked him to send me any jobs that he would not be doing. He obliged, the good fellow that he was. So for about two months, when I received almost no work on my own account, I managed by working on the assignments my friend was receiving (soon after, he got bored and busy in another job, and I did almost all the assignments he received). Besides, I retrieved some of the money I had lent a friend earlier, and borrowed a little from my parents (who have permanent jobs) during those two months. Meanwhile I got registered on multiple online agencies. My friend soon after left his job, and began doing assignments again for sometime. Even now, we exchange the assignments we don’t want to do, apart from also routinely exchanging notes about how long could we put off working on and submitting an assignment after the deadline has elapsed. The supervisors (and the managing director, who seems to supervise once-in-a-while) show hot and cold responses to this kind of friction time to time, sometimes threatening with a fine, sometimes giving in to helplessness. Some companies, like the editing company UVOCorp (which I joined later), and even Cactus, are wary of people exchanging (or sub-contracting) these accounts; UVOCorp threatens its mostly foreign workers with legal consequences for exchange of profiles!

Quality Control

Delays are quite the norm in so-called freelance work. The two most relevant factors for delays are that each assignment has to be given over to the mercy of the writer, and that most of the times, the writer finds the work uninspiring and unbearable (that is, even if a writer tries, she cannot get herself to do the work). For this purpose, agencies often pick deadlines for the writer/editor that fall much before the time of submission to the client. While this does help agencies show time efficiency to some extent, it doesn’t always work. A writer begins to understand how far he or she can stretch the submission, not merely by the university submission date that’s written in the instructions (which the supervisors don’t know of because they mostly don’t bother to check the instructions), but also by sheer practice. I start half my assignments after the submission deadline has elapsed, and thereon it is the art of stretching the deadline on the phone or email through the “Yes ma’am, right away ma’am” tactic. Writing and editing agencies alike have instituted fines or other kinds of punitive measures (such as threats of termination), and yet these are rarely applied on delays. I have often decided not to do assignments after having taken them out of boredom and inability to bring myself to do them, and supervisors haven’t noticed till two or three days after the set deadline. The same is true with a number of others I have spoken with regarding this.

There is another trick most writers and editors use to stretch time. Apart from the format of the paper, and the minimal content required to produce it, an academic writer spends no energy at all in producing a paper (in my case, I learned this trick quite well in school and college). The content writer must know the art of producing content off the back of their head by reading a few lines here or there about their topic, and write it in their own words (because the clients must present themselves as honest people who don’t do plagiarism). Thus, a typical 1000 word paper which might take an industrious student two to four days (two hours per day) to research and write now becomes a matter of two to five hours alone. The conscientious content writer looks at least at the abstracts; the hyper-practical one simply throws in citations around stuff they have created on their own. The deadlines usually do not take into consideration time for after-work, sleep, bathing, eating, etc., and talk in abstract time (“you have two days,” which really means you have ten hours). The writer knows that this ought to mean at most three hours. Agencies are aware of this, because often they demand to see the progress the writer has done when the deadline is nearing, and the writer happens to have none to show. But they cannot do anything about it, and hence try to exploit the situation by reducing the abstract deadline even more. There are certain assignments which are no-nonsense about time (perhaps the clients have paid higher, as is often the case), and here supervisors make it very clear that submission should be on time. These are usually the apt jobs for writers to rise to the occasion and negotiate terms with their employers.

One of the defining experiences of online piece-rate jobs is that you don’t know what your co-workers at the agency are doing. This poses serious problems for collective action. However, there are rare cases in which the agency has to give you assignments done by other writers, for revision, continuation, or simply for inspiration. These are often revealing; once, when I still proofread my drafts before submitting them to Educrusade, I had received something written by another worker. I was supposed to write a continuation of that. The grammar was lax enough to shame me for proofreading my assignments. It made my task much more easier, making it apparent in what possible ways I was overworking on my assignments.

This kind of laxity, though, is difficult to achieve in editing, which is a much more streamlined and scrutinized job. This is the reason why agencies take the pains to clearly instruct the editor on what they expect. Bigger agencies like UVOCorp have completely computerised systems for allocating and submitting assignments, which makes the dilly-dallying between humans outdated (if you don’t submit in time, the assignment is withdrawn, a fine is levied). In fact, UVOCorp has addressed the quality control system by adopting an interesting policy: it gives a slightly higher than an average academic writing piece-rate to two rather than one persons. A writer, who creates the content as per the instructions, and an editor who edits the content created by the writer. The editor is provided a guideline according to which she can claim the share of the payment depending on how much editing she did. Supervisors keep an eye not only the quality of the final paper, but also the share claimed by the editor and if it matches with the guidelines. Thus, for almost the same rate that a writer is otherwise paid, the agency tries to give out a grammatically sound paper to the client. This, however, still fails to guarantee good, well-researched substance from the writer. Another academic writing agency I briefly worked for exploited similar competition between workers by asking them to offer bids for assignments; the one with the lowest bid would be assigned the order. However, one can imagine how with every lowering of bid, a writer will also consider lowering the time they put into writing a paper or the effort behind researching for it. Clients often complain, “I got a C for my paper” or “I got failed in the exam.”

Online Forums and Self-Organization

There are many forums online where workers post their queries, frustrations, or “reviews” regarding the work they are doing or the companies they are doing it for. There are forums provided by the company itself, such as a Slack group for all the editors or the writers of UVOCorp. There are other forums too, such as those on websites such as Glassdoor, which are closely monitored and responded to by the companies. These are forums meant to “enhance your experience with the company, and to answer all your doubts and listen to all your discrepancies.” They usually contain discussions only about how to make work better. Interestingly, many editors at the UVOCorp Slack chat have brought up the issue of wage individually, and it has clearly found responses from the management, whether as promises to improve the bonuses system in the company, or even hiking the base rate (the latter hasn’t happened in my six months of employment). They have the feel of customer helplines to them. Because so many different kinds of people are put together on the same forum, such forums show characteristics similar to any public online forum – public quarrels, occasional factions forming, official decorum, etc. So far, it has seemed impossible for these forums to act as a space for collective co-ordination among workers; for example, recent months, being vacation time, have seen a drop in the number of assignments available for editing. There is a common concern among editors about the reduced number of jobs they are getting; however, it doesn’t seem likely that this common concern will catalyse into some collective action say, in the form of a work-stoppage. To suggest something like this on the forum would amount to trying to bell the cat. Supervisors, meanwhile, have been advicing editors about which time of the day to seek assignments, and editors lamenting how that still doesn’t get them enough jobs.

The point is not merely the need for discussion forums (which may nevertheless be useful), but that traditional methods of organizing, which presuppose a shop-floor where workers experience togetherness, are compromised. Suppose an online forum were to emerge: if it is visible to anybody, then it is also visible to the companies. But most of all, how are people who are so unknown to each other, and who are individually hooked on to a work dispensing and supervising system, to come together on a forum and trust each other to act together? Is a central committee supposed to lay down the terms for action which will be conscientiously obeyed by each worker in the privacy and anonymity of their work?

Each individual online piece-rate worker goes through experiences and responds to them in ways that are similar to other piece-rate workers too; thus, there is clearly a common thread running between isolated, discrete workers, and this often translates into limited collective action between people who find themselves in similar situations – say three people one after another refusing an assignment which involves unpaid extra work in the guise of “appendices” puts more pressure on the company to pay up. There are editing assingments which have so little time left before submission that they can be seen lying on the system for hours and hours – none of the editors are taking them. If there is some basis for collective self-organizing based on a wider convention, it is on the basis of such already existing lines of combat between each individual worker and the company she works for. What seems necessary for such collective self-organizing, though, is a wider belief in one’s ability to act in tandem with others like oneself.

II.

Professional Employment Bursting at Seams

Quote:
““There are a thousand girls like her,” when my friend told the owner of the small film company that I was looking for work. He was right. Six months later, he called needing urgent help.”
- “Self Employment, or the Illusion of Freedom”

The first thing to notice about the job market in professional fields is the extent of surplus population that is floating about it. Whether it is the university, the arts, the print world increasingly becoming niche, television industry, information technology – there are far too many people than can be accommodated. Employers are using this situation to their favor to the fullest, and simultaneously expressing crocodile fears about the high rates of attrition.

A high surplus of population means greater competition within these fields. Those who are well-established in these fields increasingly draw upon the labour of the surplus to add to their own competitive edge; even a professor who gets reviews or proofs done from their research student, for example. Those who saw in this an opportunity started agencies which offered such services on a professional basis, employing many from the surplus population trained in these fields. Very likely, people who start such agencies were also once those unable to find accommodation within the core fields. At a very informal level, people often individually sub-contract online work without letting their agencies know, getting it done from those willing to do it for a lesser cost.

For example, at UVOCorp, I often get to see the names of the writers who have done assignments. Very often, these are names of conglomerates or mentor groups (such as Thomas Hardy Conglomerate, or George Bush Mentor, to use imaginary examples). Googling these names has suggested that these are groups which liaison between the parent company – UVOCorp – and the writers who do the work. If there are any problems the company has, the conglomerate is asked to set it right by instructing or even removing the particular writer. At times, the entire conglomerate’s account is suspended, judging from online discussions. So far, I have noticed that there are writers, conglomerates, and mentor groups from places as diverse as Kenya, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Russia. Basically, these are people who have acquired proficiency not only in English, but also in specialized disciplines at universities or high school. Likewise, the editors’ Slack chat group shows that there are editors from Arab, Hispanic, South Asian, and other regions who too possess similar skills.

But possessing similar skills also has the corollary of having similar aspirations.

Dream a Little, Dream of Me.....

Quote:
“Everyone around here is an artist, or “creative” in some way. The boss is one of us; he’s a lovely guy. We all only care about great art. Beyond the specialism of this niche, the issues are that small businesses don’t require union representation and that bosses, in terms of what they do, can appear to be “one of us.” We all have two to three other jobs, just like we did ten years ago. I make less net income now than I did then. I am not alone in this, but it is hard to get to know your colleagues between so many jobs. The film company is my best bet, because there is an office, I go there to work and other people work there too. Even my colleague at my second job, at a delicatessen, is a budding filmmaker. When we meet to talk about work, he tells me he doesn’t “care about the other folk.” He just wants to make movies and move to California. I want to tell him that he’s not going to make a living from the films he makes and that working in a California grocery won’t be much sexier than what he’s doing now (unless you consider his potential visa troubles). I want to ask him why he insists in believing that there is some ladder that he is climbing. But I don’t say that. If you want to build solidarity you shouldn’t mock the dreams of colleagues. Those dreams are going to help us. Even if his dream is to make a film, or to move to California, he doesn’t want to be stuck here. He believes he can get a better deal. I try to believe the same.”
From “Self Employment, or the Illusion of Freedom”

Away from the world of toil is a dream world that each of us have made for ourselves. A necessary world, as Monika points out above. And yet, the worker entertains the misconception that they can enter the dream world via the world of drudgery. If ever there was apprenticeship, it has certainly broken down today. The wants-to-be creative must not only make her presence felt in the place where she wants to succeed at eventually (attend academic conferences, volunteer for film societies, do unpaid or measly paid internships at publishing or art houses), but she must do this at her own expense, that is, by working alongside it. Her chance at success is that she get noticed by the people she wants to work with. There she must act in a similar hierarchy, even tougher since she must now prove herself worthy of longer engagement. If she makes it to the top, she now faces the same competition that her established superiors faced earlier, and has to reproduce the same division of labour to stay competitive – outsource her work to some agency who will give it to some similar so-called freelancer. In the university, as this crisis deepens, “serious work” has long been taken care of by “think-tanks” which have their own prerogatives to work for (the chief one being how to preserve market society). Universities merely act as providers of labour to the market, whether “serious think-tanks” or otherwise. Within the classroom, the difference between those few who will go on to do “serious work” and those who will find their place in the market is made more than apparent by the increasing frequency of tests and grading. And the fact that the university (or the arthouse) can outsource such a large portion of its work to piece-rate workers already demonstrates that the standardisation of its product is a long established fact (while it still tries to hold on to the uniqueness of the idea behind the product). One should definitely consider if this is the dream one wants to encourage one’s friends in.

On the other hand, the same conditions – internet, creative skills, improvisation – that perpetuate so-called freelance work are also giving birth to a large number of sub-cultures. However one sees them (and there is such a variety of them), one can’t deny that they facilitate exchange between an unprecedented number of people, and certainly socialise (or promise to socialise) ideas on a scale not seen yet. The question to put to our dreams is: can we imagine them without the naturalised drudgery which is part of them?

From Unemployed Workers to Unemployable Persons

In the discussions I have read online so far, there are a number of places where so-called freelancers complain about how they are losing sleep and developing disorders due to the disorderly work schedule that they have. One person wrote about how their business partner would go holidaying while they work, being the freelancer in the equation. I find this rather strange. While it is true that one needs to make at least a bare minimum wage out of work, I have seen a lot of procrastination or short cuts (like the ones discussed above) which help online workers to cut corners and reduce the burden of work. This allows the freelancer to, in small steps, subjugate her “work-schedule” to a potentially more fulfilling life-schedule, if she thinks it through. It is one kind of employment in which, given a choice between working and taking care of an immediate headache, there is no supervising authority nearby to prevent you from choosing the latter (once you understand the importance of switching off the phone). At UVOCorp, one can see in the assignment details how many writers or editors have attempted the assignment and been dropped from it before you took it. Very often, you can see a long list of people who have dropped an assignment in the middle. The high attrition rates in many agencies suggest how many writers keep floating in and out of one agency after another because the agency doesn’t like their working standards. These are reminiscent of the saying that the worker only seems to comply with work insofar as she is in need. Once her need vanishes, she no longer remains a worker.

External Reference

Monika Vykoukal, “Self Employment, or the Illusion of Freedom.” https://libcom.org/library/self-employment-or-illusion-freedom