Is self-employment Taylor-made for people with disabilities?

Published on Jobs, Skills and Pay

Whatever your job, it’s been hard to escape self-employment lately. Whether it’s plumbers, couriers or drivers, the pros and cons of working for yourself have rarely been far from the headlines. The Taylor Review of modern employment practices has kept the flame burning, with its recommendations likely to have consequences for all sorts of workers and businesses. But one sizeable – and growing – section of the self-employed has received less attention: those with disabilities.

What do we know about this group? First, 750,000 people with disabilities are self-employed. Those with disabilities comprise a larger proportion of the overall self-employed workforce (16 per cent) than among employees (13 per cent). Demographics are likely to explain some of this – both disability and self-employment become more common as we age – but it’s an important reminder that changes that affect the self-employed affect a significant group of people with disabilities too.

Second, they’ve been growing as a group. As the chart below shows, the number of self-employed people with a disability has grown by 13 per cent since the year to Q1 2014, broadly in line with the increase in the numbers of disabled employees but considerably quicker than growth among non-disabled workers. In fact, over that period nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of the net growth in self-employment was driven by people with disabilities. In part, this rise has been as a result of the broader increase in the number of people who are disabled. But as more and more of the workforce fit into this category, a greater appreciation of the way they work is crucial.

Third, the self-employed with disabilities certainly don’t appear to be in it for the money. Focusing just on disabled self-employed people working full-time, they earn 23 per cent less a week than self-employed people without disabilities, and 42 per cent less than disabled employees. These gaps are larger than the comparative gaps between disabled employees and non-disabled employees, and between the non-disabled self-employed and non-disabled employees.

Source: RF analysis of LFS

Despite these challenges, we shouldn’t overlook the benefits of working for yourself, some of which are particularly relevant for those with disabilities. Self-employment can offer greater freedom over where and when you work, which could allow people to fit their careers around their health and make it easier to stop working for a time if needs be. And for those fearing discrimination from potential employers or who struggle with other aspects of the application process, working for yourself may present a welcome opportunity.

When it comes to the Taylor Review then, how should it respond to this group? First of all, just as the overall self-employed population is highly diverse, so too are the motivations and needs of disabled members of the group. That’s why, for the most part, policy specifically targeting those with disabilities may not be needed. But in some instances, it’s clear particular shifts would especially benefit many in this category.

The self-employed miss out on certain protections guaranteed to employees, some of which may be of particular importance to people with disabilities. For instance, the self-employed aren’t eligible for Statutory Sick Pay – money paid by your employer if you’re too ill to work. They’re also unable to access the Fit for Work Service, an occupational health assessment during periods of sickness absence designed to support people return to work. We’ve called for extending this service to the self-employed.

We’ve discussed their lower earnings but the self-employed are also more likely to have to deal with fluctuations in their earnings which may prove more difficult for those managing an illness or injury. For those within Universal Credit, individual Income Protection insurance policies that can help self-employed people manage with periods of low or no earnings are treated differently – and less generously – than the group schemes that employees can avail of. Levelling that playing field would be sensible and fair. Taking these steps, and keeping those three-quarters of a million people in mind when recommending broader changes to self-employment, should help to ensure the policy more accurately reflects the changing nature of the workforce.