Self employed exemption: why entertain it?

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The blanket exemption for millions of self employed workers from health and safety law will cause enormous confusion and could undermine the extensive good practice.

A proposal in the Deregulation Bill to exempt many self-employed workers from the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act is now before parliament.

Although specified industries or activities such as construction and mining will continue to be covered by health and safety legislation, the vast majority of the UK’s 4.6m self-employed workers will be completely exempt from all regulations.

This will be a major set back for the cause of workplace health and safety, and apart from the likely increase in levels of injury, will cause enormous confusion in sectors where employees and the self-employed work alongside each other.

How are responsible employers going to maintain robust management of health and safety when significant numbers among their workforces are able to say “the rules don’t affect us”? The entertainment sector, in which BECTU has 25,000 members, many of them self-employed freelancers, offers many examples in film, TV, theatre and events, of mixed teams of workers carrying out exacting and hazardous activities, which will be divided by the planned exemption.

Employers, still carrying civil liability for personal injuries despite the exemption of some of their workers, are likely to respond by making health and safety for freelancers a matter of contract compliance. By increasing the burden of cost and administration this will achieve the exact opposite of the exemption’s claimed benefit.

When originally proposed, the exemption was intended to cover self-employed workers “who pose no risk to others”, which was at least understandable, and would have allowed employers like those in the entertainment sector to carry on as usual with health and safety.

However, the prospect of a blanket exemption for millions of workers is causing concern among employers and unions alike, and could undermine the extensive good practice in workplaces which has been developed since the 1974 Act was passed.

Gerry Morrissey is the general secretary of the media and entertainment trade union BECTU. 



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