Talking about Independent Labor and Systemic Inequality

A conversation with writer Emilly Prado about freelance work, self-employment, and how our systems do not always support workers in informal economies.

linthesky (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When you think about work and money, what’s one thing that people don’t talk about enough?

I've spent the past two years intensely (and sometimes obsessively) learning all that I can about financial literacy, personal finance, investing, how to run a business, and more. Learning about money has been empowering, but it has also been really emotionally draining—at times leaving me feeling hopeless as I compare myself to others and consider all the odds that are stacked against communities of color with regard to accessing this information and having the capacity (generational and present) to build wealth. But one question I keep coming back to is “what is enough?”

As a self-employed freelance journalist-turned-entrepreneur, I've grown accustomed to assuming I have to say yes to every opportunity that has come my way in the past three years because I need money. In the beginning, I didn't realize I was saying yes to opportunities that were paying me well below minimum wage when I tracked my time. Now, I have plenty of work to keep me busy and afloat, but I still find myself saying yes to paid opportunities before taking into account my time or capacity. I'm so used to operating in a scarcity mindset—of being afraid that if I say no to something, I won't have enough to pay my bills or will suddenly stop receiving requests for work. 

On one hand, I can logically understand that I have enough and make enough and should say no to certain opportunities to make time for rest, but on the other hand, my emotional self is afraid of saying no for fear that I may fall back into the cycle of not having enough. I wonder when I will fully believe that I have enough and resist the urge to get sucked into the capitalist mindset of more money being the ultimate goal above all else.

What are some tools that you have found in your path as self-employed and entrepreneurs that empower you to seek the work you really want to do for the money that is right?

First, I spend a lot of my free time taking a variety of online courses, listening to podcasts, and reading books on financial literacy. Some of them are really helpful and others, not so much. Before I was able to be more selective about the work I took on, I had to build a decent understanding of my finances. From knowing how much money I had or didn't have, I could reflect on what I wanted and set financial milestones with steps to get there. The why remains crucial for getting to those goals. (Some of my current goals are building up my retirement savings for the first time and building an emergency fund, with plenty of smaller "fun" goals sprinkled in like saving up for my next tattoo or a massage.) Developing a savings habit was imperative to me having the ability to be selective in my work because it meant I built a well I could pull from when the checks weren't coming in as frequently. Doing reflective exercises that help you identify your values and making lists about reasons you say yes or no to work can help streamline the decision-making process for accepting work. And even with these tools, it's important to be real—there are still times when money continues to be the main reason for work and I can't justify saying no to work that might not be as enjoyable as other work. It's important to remember how lucky I am to have work and to be able to field requests and pass good paying opportunities I don't have the capacity for onto others.

I am also wondering what type of cultural shifts do you see possible in this gig economy to end this scarcity mindset?

A common piece of financial advice I hear is to shift your mindset from that of scarcity to the theory of abundance. While I'm all for analyzing our outlooks and beliefs, this piece of advice places the onus on individuals to change their situations by changing the way they see the world and money. The theory seems so simple—believe in your ability to get rich and you will! But it's not realistic, nor does it acknowledge the reality that so many people around the world exist in, which is that of not having enough money to access basic needs. One cannot simply dream themselves out of socio-economic status. 

To me, the advice should focus less on how can we get rid of the scarcity mindset in the gig economy and more about how we can change as a society to prevent situations in which people experience scarcity. The gig economy is thriving because people across the country do not feel secure or fulfilled in their full-time work. What we call full-time work is unavailable or insufficient. It's absolutely important for people to believe in themselves and their own power to enact change, but a cultural shift can only occur when individuals come together and collectively challenge the status quo. We're witnessing a resurgence of mainstream movements for labor rights and unions from so many industries. My hope is that we continue to establish unions, speak up in workplaces against unjust circumstances, and advocate for protections against all people—workers or not. Fighting against scarcity mindset means making sure our society is one that gives all people access to basic needs including food, shelter, health care, parental leave, paid time off, mental health services, dental care, eye care, social services, and so much more. 

I agree how structural changes need to happen in order for all to have access to basic needs and shift our scarcity mindset. I share your hope for more people speaking up in workplaces against unjust circumstances. How do you think we can get more people talking about this at the workplace? How do  these conversations start and move forward in more freelance and self-employed industries?

I answered the first part of this interview in October 2019 and we've slowly continued this conversation over the past few months. Now, so much has changed in the world with COVID-19 and yet the heart of our conversation suddenly feels much more amplified and present on a nationwide level. 

Speaking from my understanding of the world—not as a labor rights expert but someone who cares deeply about equity—the level of structural change that I, and many others, would like to see in the world requires drastic challenges to what's currently seen as normal and acceptable on a societal level. Yes, internal policies in workplaces can directly improve specific establishments' working conditions, but societal change necessitates action on a wider level, likely in the form of state or federal legislation and protections.

Sometimes that means forcing people to change even if they don't want to. It's comfortable having excess resources. It's comfortable to not have to think about racism or pay disparities or how one medical emergency can shatter someone's chances at secure financial footing. But self-employed or (un/der) employed people all deserve to have basic needs met.

In the workplace, challenges may look like normalizing salary transparency, advocating for benefits such as PTO, sick time, and health care for all employees, or simply speaking up if you witness a fellow colleague being mistreated. It also means listening and stepping back so others can speak up for what they need. Because independent workers don't have access to protections that are easily within reach, clients disproportionately hold power in exchanges. We should never have to chase down payment or wait sixty days from the time we've worked to receive compensation. Legal tools to protect freelancers such as contracts or even the knowledge to determine what kinds of creative or licensing rights exist should be a right, not only afforded to those who have the privilege to pay. Amongst independent workers community organizations such as the Freelancers Union, rate transparency (as wonderfully touched on by Samantha Bakall), and collective support for others when facing disparities are just a few ways to take action. 

In the face of this pandemic and the devastating economic outfall that is currently impacting so many people across the world, including many dear family and friends, I feel like I have to just cling to the hope that this might spark the beginning of a wider collective awakening that so many people have been fighting for, for so long. I'm not sure what's to come, but I desperately hope it includes change with people and our planet at the forefront.


Economics, Work, Money


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