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Unions are calling for a ‘new agenda for the self-employed’ to curb an exodus of freelancers hit by the lack of a safety net in the coronavirus pandemic.

Bectu and its parent union Prospect have backed the Inquiry into the Future of Self-Employment, which found that more than half of freelance workers had lost between 60% and 100% of their incomes in 2020.

The inquiry calls for coronavirus income support packages to be extended to freelancers, around 3m of whom are estimated to have missed out on such help.

Nearly three-quarters of the 2,200 surveyed had been unable to access financial support such as Universal Credit, and almost half said their experiences in the pandemic had made them less likely to continue as a self-employed worker.

The unions are calling chancellor Rishi Sunak to bring freelancers’ professional rights, protections and working conditions in line with people employed by businesses.

Almost 90% of those polled said the level of pandemic support for the growing number of self-employed workers was not a fair reflection of their tax contribution, and three-quarters said they had insufficient legal rights compared to employees.

“The understanding of policy makers of the professional freelance and self-employed sectors is vanishingly low,” said Prospect general secretary Mike Clancey.

He said freelancers needed better protection from those who engage their services, “without compromising on the freedom and flexibility that makes self-employment so attractive to millions of workers.

“It is essential that the government ends the exclusions from the Covid income support packages, and supports all the self-employed workers who have slipped through the net during the pandemic. We can’t have an economic recovery if the self-employed aren’t helped to bounce back."

Bectu head Philippa Childs, who gave evidence to the inquiry, echoed Clancey’s words.

“Workers in the creative industries have been left with little to no support from government schemes,” she said. “There is a lack of understanding of how self-employment works in practise, which has led to schemes that don’t fit the reality of working life for many Bectu members.

Sunak will deliver his second Budget as chancellor on 3 March. In last year's speech, he promised the self-employed would have faster access to benefits and granted extensions to their tax payments as part of a £7bn package for freelancers, small businesses and vulnerable people.

Fellow trade union Community and the Federation of Small Businesses also backed the inquiry,.

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