Why do you sell ‘em? People buy ‘em.
Occasionally, amid all the post-Brexit hype, and almost drowned out by the fanfares heralding a bright new entrepreneurial dawn for a Britain still suffering the after-effects of the last financial crisis, a quiet voice comes whispering in my ear, and it is not a happy voice.
I can think of two recent occasions when that voice has risen slightly, and I would like to put them on the record, if only as aides-memoire to my older self to show what a pessimist I was.
The first was when, for the first time in a very long while indeed, I was despatched by a recruitment agency to fill a very temporary position as a supply teacher at a very pleasant school to the South-West of London. The agency was one I had signed up previously. At the time, they interviewed me delicately, photocopied my credentials and said they’d be sure to be keeping me busy, given that a positive hive of short-staffed schools were positively plaguing them with calls.
And, indeed, a mere six months later, they called, offering me two days work, starting the very next day. I was happy to oblige. Perhaps, I thought, like the thousands of bright young things who’ve flocked to Hollywood in the hope that a stint at a burger joint will be a springboard to a silver-screen career, this will be the start of something.
It wasn’t, of course. In fact, it very much seemed like the end of something. For though I enjoyed the two days and have almost convinced myself that I had, at least, brought something more useful to the students than just the recording of their names in the register, once it was over, something slightly odd happened.
I returned to find an email from the agency asking me to record my hours in an electronic timesheet. I did that. Then I got another email, from a company of which I had never heard, inviting me to sign up as their employee. The agency, it said, ‘requested’ its workers to do so, and failing to do so would delay payment.
I asked how long the delay might be. They said it would be as long as it took me to sign the employment contract. I asked the agency, saying that, as I was self-employed already, they could as easily pay me as anyone else, and not have to worry about deductions, as I was responsible for those already.
They did not agree and, to date, haven’t given any sign of wanting to change their position. So I have been idly wondering what to do next.
My first instinct is to send an invoice to the agency. The trouble with that is that I suspect it will annoy them to the point that they won’t send me any more work. However, the alternative – signing an employment contract with a company I have no knowledge of – isn’t any better. Like all employment contracts, it’s a little restrictive.
For a start, it commits me to undertaking any assignments I’m given, at the time I’m given them, without any notice. As I am primarily self-employed, and often take on projects that tie me up for days, if not weeks, this could easily prevent me from doing anything else at all.
And, secondly, for the benefit of becoming the employee of a company of which I’ve never heard, I would have to pay a fee of around £65 a month. Given I’ve had only two days work from them all year, which might after tax, net me £150 in total, I’m not sure I’m happy about that. Besides, since when have employees been responsible for paying the employer?
This might have been very baffling, if I hadn’t worked in advertising – specifically, the production departments of advertising agencies – and seen most of those with any talent, experience and knowledge bullied or forced into renouncing their employment status in favour of ‘self-employment’ through an ‘umbrella company’.
There is a myth that working via an ‘umbrella company’ saves the worker time and trouble. The paperwork they have to do for the umbrella company is at least as complex and time-consuming as a tax return, and the fees they have to pay are well above what they would have to pay an accountant. In a very real sense, the umbrellas are both stealing their cake and eating it.
So why does it happen? It happens because it’s a tax dodge (as explained nicely by Adrian Gregory, a former practitioner, recently in the Guardian). There are a few awkward little loopholes, contrived either by mooncalf chancellors in the hope of boosting business, or by partial civil servants aiming at post-retirement jobs in the recruitment sector, which effectively blur the line between employment and self-employment by, as in this case, allowing the umbrella to claim tax-deductible items that the ordinarily self-employed would be able to claim for themselves, while putting all the normal burdens of employment, such as paid holiday, sick leave, m/paternity leave, pension and national insurance contributions and protection against summary unemployment, on the workers. This, it turns out, can be a nice little earner in itself, and it becomes an even better earner if the worker can be persuaded to pay a fee for the privilege of being stiffed.
That’s not the only reason it happens, though. There’s another, more pernicious reason. And that’s because workers sign up to it. Which is what brought my second anecdote to mind.
I recently, on returning from a sojourn abroad, noticed Signs of Mice in the kitchen of my flat. There is only one thing to do about Signs of Mice, and that is to take the sort of drastic action that hardware shops were invented to facilitate.
I went to a hardware shop and stood for a while, surrounded by hammers and buckets and tins of paint, in abject contemplation of the mousetraps. There were two varieties on offer. There were ‘glue traps’, strips of cardboard that, when trodden on by mice, catches their feet in an ingenious chemical gloop, immobilizing them in fearful wait for the time when the householder can bring them blessed release with a mallet. I did not fancy those.
The other sort of trap was a bland, plastic affair. These are constructed so that a tempting pedal, smeared with bait, is elevated between two plastic jaws which, should the mouse move the pedal, snap shut on whatever is between them. I studied these, and read the instructions. The instructions for humans were clear enough, and admirably simple. But there were no instructions for mice and this, given the design of the traps, seemed a regrettable omission. The springs did not look very strong, and the plastic had little heft. They could, conceivably, kill a mouse, but the mouse would have to be fairly weak and sluggish for that to happen. To my mind, a mouse in any sort of health would end up wearing the trap like a hat. I am, however, no expert, so sought counsel from someone better placed to know.
“Do these work?” I asked the shopkeeper
“Not really” he replied
“So why do you sell them?” I asked
“People buy ‘em” he said
I’m sure there’s a lesson in that.