Articles - 28th January 2020

What does Brexit Friday mean for Expat Freelancers?

Words by Maya Middlemiss
Illustration by Harry Woodgate

It has not only been work opportunities that have been the driving force for Brits emigrating to Spain. Along with the TV documentary fodder of those sinking their life savings into beachside bars on a whim, many people of working age have found the dream of life in the sun can turn sour as the financial crash Spaniards refer to as ‘la crisis’ continues to bite after a decade, and jobs remain hard to come by.  There’s an old saying, along the lines of, “what’s the best way to make a million in Spain? Come over with 2 million.”

And that was before the UK embarked on what most people of any nationality around here regard as its greatest act of insanity and self-harm (don’t trust the random racist retirees the mainstream media dredge up to interview periodically, most of us here are bitterly aware of everything we stand to lose along with our European citizenship).

Right now the situation is frankly dire for many people who chose to exercise their freedom to live, work, and travel within the EU, whether they’re retired on a fixed pension denominated in sterling or seeking work in the Spanish economy.  The Guardian ran a depressing piece about the issues for job seekers recently, ”CVs at the bottom of the pile” – reflecting this knock-on effect of the ongoing uncertainty for British immigrants. Spanish employment law is incredibly complex, and the rules vary a great deal for non-EU nationals. Why would any business hiring now risk-taking on someone whose status might – or might not – abruptly change, to that of a third-party national requiring completely different rules and paperwork?

So the popularity of freelancing in Europe was unsurprising, and not wholly a recent phenomenon. Those complex employment laws mean actual contracts of employment have always been hard to come by anyway, and many people are hired as ‘autonomós’, self-employed people, for whom (unlike in the UK) personal costs are onerous. As such, there are lots of not-really-freelancers working precariously for one business, effectively on zero-hours contracts – and that’s the ones who show up as working legally at all.

But freelancing for real, I contend, is the factor which might just get people through this period of ongoing uncertainty, and whatever follows it.

If you’re paying your own social security anyway, it makes sense to diversify. When you can truly decouple work and income from specific markets and locations, you create options – and when there are so many factors you can’t control at all, getting a grip on those you can and looking ahead offers stability, when the world around you seems to be wobbling.  It means thinking about your work as a business, with both opportunities and threats on the horizon.

Alison Kilkenny has been a serial freelancer for many years, with stints in care work and crafting, before retraining recently as an English teacher, work she now carries out completely online. She loves the flexibility of freelancing, allowing her to work with any company she likes, as well as choosing clients in the target market she prefers, 4 to 16 year-olds, from around the world.

She hasn’t found the threat of Brexit leading to a decline in demand for English language skills, on the contrary, “English language learning is an important skill around the world, and more and more people want to learn it as a second or foreign language for a number of reasons. They need to have a high level of English to get into universities abroad, and they also need it to pursue their chosen profession when the leave university”.  Rather than compete for precarious temporary contracts with Spain-based language academies, most of Alison’s work comes from Chinese companies, where she’s helping a new generation gain globally useful language skills at a young age – while living in the area of the Costa Blanca she has loved for years.

In contrast, Molly Sears-Piccavey’s freelancing is totally grounded in her location of choice, as she works in the travel industry, as a consultant and luxury travel concierge. Focused around the beautiful city of Granada, she diversifies her activities across specialist food tours and relocation services, as well as sharing her passion for the area via her award-winning blog – which brings timely global attention to her work and her chosen home: “As a freelancer outside the UK, I have learnt to focus on an international market rather than British or even European. Some of my best clients recently have been from Hong Kong, USA, and Israel” she explains, and as Molly has been resident in Spain for more than two decades, she’s not entangled with UK banking and business structures either.

That was the challenge for me a couple of years ago, when faced with the need to set up a new limited company, in order to access a specific piece of work. In the UK that’d be a fairly straightforward and inexpensive thing to do, but in Spain… Well, let’s just say there are reasons why a lot of Brits have operated UK businesses for years, perfectly legally, consulting to their UK businesses as freelancers here.

I’d have gone that route myself before June 2016 when everything changed, but in our strange new world I needed an alternative – with double taxation and VAT offsetting under threat in the forthcoming negotiations, not to mention an increasingly unpredictable sterling/euro exchange rate, I didn’t want to be tied to the UK financially or legally.

Because I frequently wrote about emergent technology and blockchain I had previously come across the innovative approach of the small Baltic nation of Estonia, who had essentially digitised their entire government using open source public-private key encryption. A side project of this was a thriving ‘e-residency’ scheme for non-Estonian nationals, already helping digital nomads and entrepreneurs around the world – and I discovered I could quickly set up and run a Europe-based business entirely online, via digital signatures and ID.

It’s part of a growing global tech infrastructure that facilitates location-independent freelancing. Estonia also has turnkey support services that help sole traders operate online, attracting digital nomads globally – and that cost me a fraction of the monthly accounting fees I would pay to operate a Spanish limited company, even as a business-of-one.

Challenger banks and money service businesses like Revolut and Transferwise remove a lot of the pain and cost of currency receipts, and enable freelancers to be truly location-independent, both in terms of where they work and who they work for, while online marketplaces and freelance work platforms enable access to global hiring. And the technology for actually collaborating online with people anywhere in the world also gets better all the time, especially now reliable fibre broadband is available in most urban areas, and 4G coverage better than parts of the UK. What we once grandly described as videoconferencing is now a click away on any device, as are cloud-based project management systems, storage, and tools.

As a writer I find it reassuring and liberating to have this infrastructure in place. I don’t wish or intend to leave my home, but when decisions are being made a thousand miles away which could affect my rights to travel and live where I choose, it’s good to have options. And to stay on top of the technological revolutions which make it possible (especially as I get to write about them).

But you don’t have to be entrepreneurial to make a success of remote freelance work.

Richard Middleton does customer service work for a software application. “I log on regular hours, onboarding new users and helping them with the app. It’s easier for the startup to use freelancers, and having our team distributed around the world lets us cover different timezones. For me it’s steady work I can do from anywhere, in English, which lets me live here in Spain – for so many families here one partner works away more than 50% of the time, doing anything from in-home care to working on oil rigs, but I am home with my family instead.

“Of course I don’t have the job security of a contract, or things like holiday pay, but so many job contracts in Spain are not getting renewed anyway, and the wages are poor.  I’m learning all the time and carving out a role for myself here, making sure I am as indispensable as possible!”

It’s an extension of the flexibility and resilience I’ve always admired in emigrant communities, including working-age Brits in Spain. When times were good it was easy to open a bar or set up in real estate with no experience or knowledge, making hay when it was there for the taking.

Nowadays things are harder, but people still here are those who are proved themselves versatile and pragmatic, willing to pivot and try new things, responding to changing situations in a way that larger businesses cannot.

And while we continue to live with rolling uncertainty as to our legal status and future in Europe, those of us ‘brefugees’ who freelance are in the best place we can be. Not just because we chose that place geographically – though that helps, as I sit and write this overlooking a choppy white-capped Mediterranean, from a marina bar that combines excellent coffee and reliable Wi-Fi. Compared to friends and family in the UK who might never have the freedom to leave, or for those tied to an employment contract which dictates how and where they do their work, I feel grateful and relieved.

Of course, I still hope the UK will come to its senses and step back off the ledge, that my children will have the same choices I had about where to live, study and work. But whatever happens, they will be part of a global economy and workplace with a flexible and creative attitude to adding value in different ways and getting paid for it.

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