9 Comments

Summary:

Coworking and independent work may seem utopian as workers escape being chained to dreary cubicles, but exploitation of contractors is still a danger. Are coworking spaces inadvertently making it easier to establish asymmetric power relationships and, if so, what’s to be done about it?

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Independent and remote work may be on the rise and, as many experts have told us, this offers great benefits, from access to new markets for previously underemployed talent to the joys of autonomy and control for workers. But not every aspect of the change is rosy. Provision of benefits like health insurance is an often mentioned problem as is downward pressure on wages, but on Deskmag recently, Nina Pohler identified another potential problem: exploitation of independent workers by those contracting out work.

“While coworking spaces might come pretty close to the ideal working space, at times they can also be spaces where some of the worst characteristics of a capitalist economy are being reproduced — just like in an ordinary workspace,” she writes. Independent work may solve many problems, but it doesn’t get rid of asymmetric relationships between those handing out work and those completing it, she states. What does she mean by this?

If there is a big difference between the partners in a work relationship, sometimes the stronger party gets all the advantages and benefits, while the weaker party has to bear the full risk and disadvantages.

Usually the strong partner is someone who is established and well connected. Often these people or companies are very good at communicating and selling, they act mainly as project managers, while contracting out the actual development or design work to other people. The subcontractors in turn are often newcomers who don’t have a big network, who are rather inexperienced and not as good at selling themselves and their work. Usually these people are happy that someone subcontracts them work and they don’t have to spend time on acquisition, communicating and networking. The relationship between the main contractor and the subcontractor can be win-win situation, but rather often it is not.

The result of this unequal balance of power, Pohler claims, can be impossible deadlines, insane hours, failure to pay for revisions to a project and extremely long lag times before payment for subcontractors. And coworking spaces, she feels, may be inadvertently making the problem worse. “It is easy to find young, skilled and motivated people as subcontractors, and it is easy to build relationships on the assumption that everyone is more or less the same and equal,” she writes.

Pohler may diagnose the problem in her article, but when it comes to solutions, she simply advocates for greater discussion of the issue and more openness in the community.

Is that an adequate solution, or do you think independent workers need to do more to protect themselves?

Image courtesy of Flickr user JD Hancock.

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  1. Avonelle Lovhaug Wednesday, February 1, 2012

    The solution for indies (or any business) is to diversify their customer base.

    More importantly, I don’t see how coworking makes this worse. In fact, I’d argue it makes it better, because you are interacting with more people, and less likely to get locked with a single client.

    Frankly, her piece makes independent workers into victims instead of business people making decisions (good or bad) about their business. I found it to be insulting.

    But I should have known where it was headed, based on this line: “This article wants to address one fundamental problem of a capitalist economy – asymmetric relationships, and how they are reproduced and exploited in coworking spaces.”

    Remember: capitalism is bad and will exploit you. /sarcasm

  2. Nathania Johnson Wednesday, February 1, 2012

    No one is being exploited here. These aren’t children and no one is being forced to take work. And it has nothing to do with co-working either. I see plenty of ads for copywriting a 1,000 words for $3. Ridiculous. But maybe it’s worth it for a new writer to get some clips. Certainly better than an unpaid internship. Or promise of ad revenue share. It’s not like this is forever – these are temporary situations to get advance your career.

  3. Angel Kwiatkowski Wednesday, February 1, 2012

    I’m unclear why this article even mentioned coworking. If anything, freelancers are better protected in a strong coworking community because we teach classes on contract writing/negotiation, getting paid on time and the critical partnership meeting that precedes the contracting phase. I’m disappointed in this article. If members are getting screwed with relationships made at coworking spaces, then there are much larger more serious issues at play for those coworking spaces and their community manager(s).

    1. Did Ms. Pohler cite any examples of this issue ever actually happening in a coworking space?

  4. In short, the article is BS. No stats. No evidence. No examples. Looks like the writer has taken 1 person’s bad experience & generalized it. I work in a co-working space myself (and have done for over a year) and am right in the middle of the ‘food chain’ – I have clients in the same building (and even same office) as well as collaborators. I’ve also worked in client service and production management inside marketing agencies for 10 years of my career. Comparing the two work environments, I’ve seen infinitely more ‘exploitation’ in the agency model. Sure, being independent brings along the odd late night – but it also brings along more than the odd opportunity to hit the golf course, ski slopes or go shopping for an afternoon. And being independent comes with the responsibility to negotiate your own contracts. Personally, I’d never get in to an arrangement where I got paid when my client got paid, and I’d never expect that of a collaborator. just because there may be one or two examples of people that have not had positive experiences in co-working spaces, that’s no reason to tar them all with the same brush. Perhaps we should all avoid flying in case our plane crashes?

  5. Sadly, exploitation happens in every industry and it has to stop. Independent workers or freelancers are at high risk, especially when there’s no job security here and everyone’s tempted to take on any freelance project without having a clue on the business ethics of their clients. Most often, contractors offshore are subject to this, even with work contracts in place. We all know that filing a claim for a few hundred bucks is costly when we’re talking of international borders,laws.. and so, many unscrupulous clients get away with it. This is a reality that needs to be addressed: How can we come up with a better solution to protect the rights of independent workers, wherever they are located in the world?

    1. First up, as independent workers we CHOOSE to be independent. If we have the skills, we can find employment in our field. That employment may not be exactly what we want or desire, but hey – that’s life. It’s not a box of chocolates. A price comes with that independence. It’s called responsibility. If a freelancer doesn’t ‘have a clue on the business ethics of their clients’ that is entirely their own look out. They are independent. They can choose whether to do work for a client or not.

      Second – what are these ‘rights’ of independent workers? When you CHOOSE to be independent, you CHOOSE to give up many of the rights afforded to employees. You really have only one ‘right’ – to be paid according to your contract.

      Sure, we’ve all been stiffed by a client. When it happens learn from it, move on, don’t let it happen again but quit the moaning. If you can’t handle the responsibility that comes with the ‘freedom’ and make crap judgement calls then go get a job.

  6. In germany the biggest bad things for freelancers are growing projects that were calculated for a smaller size and the very bad payment behaviour of agencies and bigger companies. I already saw many people leave back into a job because of these reasons…

  7. This has absolutely nothing to do with coworking. Freelancers have a choice to take work or not, and the physical space they work from is irrelevant. (If it were, would you also blame libraries and cafes and individual homes? Of course not.) This poorly written article has no basis on research and is grasping for some sort of negative story to paint broadly on an entire industry. Are there negatives to coworking? Sure, every industry has a balance. Blaming individual work choices on an industry isn’t accurate or fair.

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