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Freelancers of the World, Grab Your Bills!

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Freelance workers number around 35 million in the United States, making up approximately one third of the workforce. They offer a valuable contribution to the economy, with an estimated 55 per cent of American companies using contingent workers. Troublingly, this valuable contribution often comes at a personal cost. According to a recent survey carried out by the Freelancers Union, 77% of freelancers - totaling just under 27 million workers - have been subject to nonpayment, having difficulty collecting money owed for services provided.

To address this grossly unfair issue, The Freelancers Union today will launch the World’s Longest Invoice, a campaign to help raise awareness of this flagrant, and common, disregard of independent workers’ rights.

At present, these workers remain unprotected by state legislation, and lack any legal means to collect outstanding dues. As the number of companies using freelancers increases, so too will the number of payment infringements against them, unless appropriate labor laws are enacted.

The campaign invites freelancers from all corners of the globe - who have been subjected to a non-paying client - to come forward and sign their name and the amount they were defrauded. The Longest Invoice initiative will run for two weeks, with the aim of documenting US $1,000,000 in collective unpaid invoices.

The measure aims to highlight the breadth of the problem and inequity of current labour laws. The final invoice will be delivered to the Senate Labour Committee of New York urging them to pass The Freelancer Payment Protection Act, helping independent workers collect money from delinquent clients for unpaid invoices over US $600.

The bill is a nose hair away from legislation, having already been passed by the House of Assembly in June 2011. If the legislation is enacted, state legislative bodies around the country will be prompted to follow suit, paving the way for international replication.

From a legal and economic perspective, passing such a bill makes enormous sense. But there is a deeper, more personal account to why this kind of legislation needs to be enforced. I spoke with Anthony, a creative freelancer in the New York area, who very recently battled with a high-profile, nonpaying client over one years’ worth of creative services and a six figure invoice.

Before commencing employment, Anthony went through all the proper procedures of contractual work, signing a mutually agreed contract. When it came to pay-day, however, Anthony’s client refused to foot the bill.

“When you plan for a year and take on a project, you count on that to cover everything. You go through the process of coming up with a price and it’s been agreed on, and at the end, the people who have been admiring you for the past year give you the cold shoulder.”

The client Anthony worked for ignored his repeated calls and emails, claiming they needed documentation justifying his invoice. “They asked for documentation, so I gave them a book,” Anthony said, who spend hours collecting and collating the proof. “Collecting documentation is a full time job;” time which could have been better spent on paid work. It is no wonder that, as a result of nonpaying clients, 55% of freelancers surveyed were hindered from growing their business, but this fact is not enough to stop corporate corruption.

“Companies do these things because they know that it’s impossible for people to afford time, energy, and money to do it”.

Anthony was lucky to have a friend working in a law firm who managed to have his case taken on pro bono, though this stroke of luck was less rosy when he was obliged to settle for half the amount owed. “Pro bono cases come at a cost to the law firm, so they usually settle out of court. I got half of what was owed, but it didn’t cover the the amounted mortgage repayments,” he said. Nor did it change the fact that he had asked his parents for financial support and was already dealing with sharks at the foreclosure.

Spending time and money on ceaseless correspondence or pursuing legal action are currently the only options available to independent workers. Moreover, the cost of legal aid may outweigh the amount owed, and in many instances, freelancers are forced to write outstanding invoices off as a loss. In fact, only 4% of freelancers surveyed pursued legal aid.

The lack of resources at a freelancer’s disposal to ensure timely and complete payment for their work means there is little motivation for businesses to pay freelancers’ invoices, and as a result, they are often considered an optional expense.

This marginalisation - being devoid of any legal rights - goes beyond the financial loss of non-payment. Anthony stressed that the hardest part of the ordeal went beyond the dollar value.

“It wasn’t just the financial aspect. It was the creative bankruptcy that followed. It was all the insanity surrounding the foreclosure and the mortgage repayments. I was at my wits’ end. You feel alone. Especially if you work alone. It was an overwhelming, horrific period.”

According to his settlement agreement, the details of his case, including his name, must remain undisclosed. “I feel totally stifled. You can’t talk about it, you’re forced to be clandestine when you’ve been taken advantage of, and you can’t openly go after what’s yours.” Sadly, this is not only to protect his finances, but also his reputation, lest he be branded a delinquent contractor, elevating his experience to a whole new level of unjust.

Following months of financial, emotional and creative deprivation, getting back on the work horse was a difficult feat. “Even now, when I sign a contract, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said, and added with a laugh, “I wonder if I send subconscious messages to people telling them to screw me over.”

Unsurprisingly, Anthony will be one of the first freelancers to sign the World’s Longest Invoice demanding change. As more professionals opt for a freelance career, this Act will be a critical piece of legislation for the thousands of freelancers in the New York area, and will prompt constituents elsewhere to follow suit, replicating the Act throughout the nation. And hopefully, throughout the world.

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Deskmag is proud to support the Freelancers Union World's Longest Invoice initiative. If you are a freelancer and have experienced a non-paying client, please show your support by listing your name and the amount unpaid on the World’s Longest Invoice.

The Freelancer’s Union also provide tools for independent workers to ensure they’re ‘paid, not played’, including a universally applicable contract, a client scorecard (to help stop multiple-offenders), and a collection letter template, drafted by a New York attorney.

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