It is notoriously difficult for former convicts to find work, and we want to start the discussion around whether the “clean slate” aspect of the gig economy could be a useful tool to help ex-offenders land on their feet. Faith Spear explores the ability of the gig and freelance economy to assist ex-offenders in finding work upon their release.

The job market is changing. 4% of all people in employment are now working in the gig economy in the UK, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) estimates.

So, can ex-offenders also become a part of this growing sector? Likewise, could this be a good way of opening up a greater part of the job market to ex-offenders?

The benefits which all individuals seek when choosing freelance work and being part of the gig economy rather than working within the traditional working model apply equally to those released from prison. These benefits may include independence, being your own boss and having flexibility and control over how and when you work.

Turning self-employed cuts out the demoralization of completing job application forms. Even with organisations adopting the ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, where the tick box asking if applicants have a criminal record has been removed from job application forms, initially creates a level playing field. With 11 million people in the UK having a criminal record it is a group too big to be side-lined or ignored. 

Entering or re-entering the job market for those who have served time in prison does not have to start on release. Release of Temporary Licence (ROTL) has proved to be an effective way of reintegration back into society and thus enabling those coming to the end of a sentence to work out in the community to gain essential skills, increase self-esteem and to build for a future in the years ahead. 

In May 2017, The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published a report entitled: Support for ex-offenders: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2016–17. In this document, the third recommendation stated that “all prisons be required to demonstrate strong links with employers, including local businesses, and ensure that the rules and processes for securing ROTL are straightforward and consistent…” 

A year later in his keynote speech, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke MP said, “I want prisons to be places of hope and aspiration that propel offenders into employment, and ultimately help to reduce the number of victims of crime in the future”.

But in order to “propel” offenders into employment, including being part of the gig and freelance economy, there needs to be a joined-up process. It is not enough to spend months or even years in menial jobs within a prison environment, as this does not necessarily prepare for meaningful work on release. Neither does it show that prisons are places of hope or aspiration. 

The Government has proposed that there should be a coordinated approach between prisons and local and national employers. Through building relationships, it will enable individuals within the prison system to receive specific training for jobs that are available on the outside. In addition, working with these individuals will permit them to learn the key skills needed if they wish to start their own business on release. For many, this would then provide a smoother transition from prison back into the workforce. To facilitate this there also need to be pre-existing relationships between caseworkers or mentors to support individuals whilst in prison and to continue that support on release and for the immediate future. A “through the gate” initiative. 

A labour market defined by freelance work and short-term contracts can also bring the added concern of lack of job security. The Independent newspaper in Jan 2019 told us that self-employed workers may earn on average £240 a week, compared to £400 by those in full-time positions. Unfortunately, the gig economy is a labour market that is defined by the dominance of short-term contracts and zero-hours contracts rather than permanent jobs. Having temporary workers can be cheaper and aid with last-minute scheduling. 

But reading the Taylor Review commissioned by HM Government in July 2017 on modern working practices raises interesting points:

“The benefits to an individual choosing to work in this way include flexibility and control over how they work, but this new way of working also raises questions about the suitability of the current employment law framework in addressing the needs of people actively choosing to work outside of the traditional employment model.” 

After coming out of a period in prison, do individuals really want or need the uncertainty associated with freelance work?

There are those with entrepreneurial skills that would want to start their own business on release, be their own boss and make the decisions rather than follow instructions from others. This can be contrasted from being confined within a prison where most decisions about your life are taken by others. Being your own boss can bring a completely new start and, in so doing, a sense of freedom. 

With just a laptop and a smartphone, work is no longer confined to an office allowing the freedom of choosing where to work and there appears to be a movement away from the 9-5 office hours.

The downside of this for those that have spent many years in prison is that technology has moved forward at a rate that prisons have not usually kept up with. In-cell technology is only available in certain prisons. And there are the practicalities of obtaining a laptop computer and a smartphone. For example, mobile network operators may not be willing to extend a pay monthly contract on a smartphone to a person with little or no credit history to reference. Similarly, retailers of laptop computers would find themselves unable to sell equipment to an individual who requires finance for precisely the same reasons. Practical barriers such as these are insurmountable for many people leaving prison. This is often a fact overlooked by people who can obtain credit easily. 

There are still hurdles to overcome, although on the face of it being self-employed removes the stigma of having to declare past convictions to a potential employer. 

But for people leaving prison, if the objective is to suppress or hide their history and criminal convictions, then self-employment is setting themselves up for failure. At some point, and for some reason, there will be a necessity to disclose. An example of that would be where the nature of your freelance work may require the organisation hiring your services to consider convictions as part of their due diligence procurement process. Another example would be that any unspent convictions must be declared to your insurance provider if required to do so when the policy is taken out. Failure to do so would render the policy invalid should an insurance claim need to be made and new information comes to light. 

Even the simple task of opening a current account and deposit account with a retail bank or building society can become problematic especially if convictions were for fraud. Because of the regulations which banks must satisfy, they are obliged to be thorough when opening accounts for new customers and during the lifetime of the account. It is possible that a clear separation of business and personal accounts may help, but you must be aware of the bank’s policy on this to prevent any misunderstanding at a later date. 

It is perfectly understandable that people with convictions wish to make a fresh start under a different name. For those who turn self-employed or for those who register a company, it is permitted to trade under a name that is not your own. In any kind of business, either freelance or as a registered company, reputation is critical. This means that people whose names are associated with high profile cases have a much harder barrier to overcome. Others whose cases attracted less media attention still have a reputational issue, but one which can be more easily managed. The gig economy should never be considered as a safe harbour from anyone’s criminal history whether in the public eye or obscurity. 

Those opting for a freelance route would still need to get themselves registered with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), forms for this are available from the tax office, but registration is increasingly done online. There are organisations and social enterprises which specialise in helping people with convictions navigate their way through registering for and declaring tax. A high proportion, as much as 75% of people, cite debt, accommodation and other financial issues as their key worries as they approach release, according to RIFT Social Enterprise: “Given that only about 26.5% actually find work once they’re out, it’s easy to see why over half end up reoffending within a year”

Some organisations that work within prisons, organising events such as job fairs to help people find employment do a fabulous job. A number of these organisations also help people into self-employment. Caution is advised, because there are those which have blanket bans on recruiting individuals with certain types of convictions, such as sexual offences and arson. 

Have we arrived at the point where the concept of a clean slate is a fallacy? And is freelancing or gig economy work the way forward for former offenders? There are no easy answers, and some ex-offenders may feel uncomfortable with the lack of stability offered to those who procure gig economy work. But it does offer an opportunity that, in many ways, was not available to them previously. 

 

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