When Olga FitzRoy found out she was pregnant with her son Lucas, the Shared Parental Leave had just been introduced. But when she and her husband started filling out the forms for Shared Parental Leave, they quickly realised the policy wasn’t available for self-employed people like herself. She’s now campaigning to change this.
Olga started working as a freelance Sound Engineer in 2013, she records and mixes music for bands, TV shows and films. When she discovered that she wasn’t eligible for Shared Parental Leave and Statutory Shared Parental Pay, she learnt that freelance mums can apply for Maternity Allowance.
“I just realised that it was really unfair because the amount that you get with Maternity Allowance if you’re a self-employed mum is £145 a week, which is exactly the same as you would get for Shared Parental Pay”, explains Olga.
But Maternity Allowance doesn’t include the first six weeks at 90% of your average weekly earnings, unlike Statutory Maternal Pay. As for freelance dads and same-sex couples, there is nothing available. Olga thinks it’s really sexist that the system assumes that it’s the mum’s job to look after the baby.
Being able to share childcare with a partner is particularly useful for freelancers who often work on a project basis. In other words, we have one scheme that is flexible for people with a fixed job they can return to, while we have a more rigid scheme for those in a more precarious position, whose very status of self-employment is about flexibility.
Like parental leave, Maternity Allowance gives you 10 “keep in touch” days – days you can work during your leave. Once you’ve used them you have to make a choice between staying off work and potentially losing your clients, or going back to work fairly quickly and losing your allowance. As you can imagine, 10 days in 9 months isn’t much time to keep in touch with your clients, and as a freelancer, you have no guarantee that you’ll get your job back after your leave.
“You have the kind of paradox where if you’re employed and you’re on maternity leave you can start your own business in your spare time, but then if you have your second child you have to give up your business because of government regulations,” explains Olga.
It took her about 18 months to get back to doing the same amount of work she had done before. A study published in April 2018 shows that only one in five self-employed women return to their pre-baby earnings by the time their child is two. When Olga reached that point, she still felt strongly about the law and decided to do something. She got in touch with former minister Jo Swinson, who was in charge of the Shared Parental Leave policy.
The MP told her that the government wanted to get the new policy through before the general election and that it would have taken longer, and potentially not gone through at all if it had included self-employed people. Olga saw that as a good sign: “It was interesting because it meant they didn’t have any kind of ideological reason why they didn’t bring it in”. This convinced Olga to start her campaign Parental Pay Equality. From then on, she has devoted every spare moment, between work and mum duty, to working on it.
Jo Swinson gave her advice on how to campaign and recommended that she submit a report during the government review on modern employment practices. Olga produced a report that provided important data on the subject. It showed that 33% of those who were on Maternity Allowance didn’t take the full amount, many stating that they needed to return to work for financial and career reasons.
Olga started to connect with other activists and organisations such as Pregnant and Screwed, IPSE, and trade unions like Equity, NUJ and Bectu. She also managed to get the support of well-known artists such as Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, which helped to publicise the cause.
The campaign quickly took off. After meetings with representatives of the Labour party the policy ended up in their manifesto. Olga then met with MP and Shadow Minister for Early Years and former actress Tracy Brabin: “we told her about the law and why it’s unfair and she totally got it because she brought up her own kids whilst being a self-employed actress”. Tracy Brabin accepted to propose a 10 minute-rule bill, finally bringing the policy to parliament in February 2018. Unfortunately, the bill failed to move past its second reading.
Olga explains that politics and bad timing were at play again. Many bills get put forward to parliament but as this one is not government policy it isn’t prioritised. Brexit is also making it difficult to get anything through parliament at the moment. “But it’s a good thing to draw attention to it and get MPs to think about it and talk about it”, Olga says. She also thinks that freelance life is still misunderstood by policy-makers. She found she had to explain the extent of what it entails to various government officials when she met them.
Perhaps one of the most important parts of her work is making sure policy-makers understand how damaging the current framework can be for the businesses of self-employed people, and women in particular. And not only this but in not considering the self-employed in the policies they produce, they are excluding 15% of the workforce, a number that is only set to grow.