From door-to-door sales reps to handymen, many self-employed people are in a precarious position - and that's about to get worse under the new universal credit system, says BERNADETTE HORTON
Recently much has been made about new stats revealing a "surprise" boom in the numbers of self-employed.
While various distinguished writers and newspaper reporters have noted the rising stats, no-one has got behind those figures to examine why more people have become self-employed.
One in seven of the UK's workforce is now apparently self-employed. This figure is a staggering 367,000 more than in 2008.
Even more surprising is that 84 per cent of the increase has been among people aged 50-plus, according to the Office for National Statistics. A third of the newly self-employed are women.
Have we suddenly become a nation that is providing growing numbers of entrepreneurs or is there something a little more telling?
Among the figures there will of course be people who genuinely want to use their skills to become self-employed electricians, carpenters or plumbers. But as I scratched the surface, I uncovered vast numbers of people in the sales reps industry, which particularly interested me as I have personal experience as an independent Avon sales rep.
Until a few years ago sales reps would be able to earn £20-£30 per month as "a bit extra" and not have to be registered with HMRC as self-employed.
All that has changed and now Avon, Kleeneze, Betterware sales reps have been told by HMRC to register as self-employed, however little they earn.
When I worked for Avon you would earn income on your sales once every three weeks.
You are given a couple of set roads to sell in and are unable to sell outside these boundaries unless to personal friends.
The kind of people who take up this sort of work are predominantly women who are carers or have health or disability problems or men who have been made newly unemployed themselves.
You have to sell £500 worth of products to make £80 every three weeks on average - and these are the successful reps.
Most sell under £200 and, for example, in January - the leanest month of the year for sales - if you sell less than £80 of products you get £0.
You have to pay for all your own sales literature yourself, such as brochures, bags and sales tools.
There is a very high turnover of reps, as the rewards are not very high unless you can sell to friends outside of the set road territory.
HMRC did a campaign two years ago to get all door-to-door sales reps to register as self-employed and warned of the consequences of not doing so.
Thus a vast army of reps, who are in the most part working poor, earning pittances, are added to the list of self-employed.
The government, not content with seeing people desperately scrabbling for low-paid self-employment in a vain effort to put food on the table, is now intent on demonising them too.
This has turned into a concerted effort to savage the low paid. Witness the far-right media raging over poverty and immigration when they found out that people selling the Big Issue are in fact self-employed and many of them immigrants.
Big Issue sellers are people wanting to work, wanting to earn money and contribute to the economy. They pay £1 to buy the paper and sell it for £2. Very entrepreneurial, but not good enough for right-wing newspapers which don't recognise it as a "proper job."
Many Big Issue sellers are earning small amounts of money to get by and need working tax credit top-ups, like the other four million working poor. But because they happen to be self-employed, they are demonised further and scoffed at for not being in "proper" employment.
What should they do? Swap self-employment for zero-hours contract employment - if they can get it - or be further demonised as "scroungers."
Many men who were previously employed in skilled work in factories, for example, have been made redundant or replaced by zero-hours contract agency staff.
Proud men who have always worked, rather than drag themselves down to jobcentres to sign on, have made the switch to become self-employed handymen, who will turn their hand to any domestic household tasks or gardening work. I spoke to a friend who was forced to make this switch.
"Some weeks, especially in the winter, I earn less than £100. But I have earned it - hanging light fittings, painting rooms, even shopping for an elderly person. Whatever someone needs doing, I will do it. No work is beneath me and while I am working as a self-employed handyman, my kids can see me going out to work each day knowing I am doing my best to house, feed and clothe them.
"I get working tax credits to make up my low pay and I don't want to be doing this for ever, but I will do what it takes to work.
"This government has no right to say someone like me is not working hard enough or that I should get a paid employed job on part-time zero-hours contracts.
"If a job as an electrician in a factory came up on a permanent full-time contract I would take it, simple as. I need the security of knowing I can pay my rent and bills and zero-hours cannot provide this."
Many people who are low-paid and self-employed have had no wage increases since 2010 and indeed many are taking pay cuts to keep themselves afloat.
Yet under universal credit the government says that if your self-employment is not earning you a minimum income floor of £11,000 per year, it will force you to seek paid employment instead.
Thus many millions of self-employed working poor could end up unemployed instead - yet another barmy idea to erupt from the ideology department at the DWP.
The reality is that the self-employed dearly want employment to give them self-respect and to avoid being thrown onto the dole scrapheap.
Yet the government rhetoric is they are not working hard enough. The Tories in particular fail to realise that for the self-employed there is no such thing as being able to demand the minimum wage or a set hourly rate, let alone a living wage.
Hauling a self-employed person to the jobcentre every month, scrutinising their income and threatening them with unemployment if they dare to claim universal credit is a policy only the Tories could dream up.
The party that supposedly supports entrepreneurs, those who would rather work for any pay than have to sign on as unemployed, is a caricature of itself.
The idea seems to be that the Tories will support only those self-employed worthy enough to already be earning large amounts of money and not the self-employed working poor.
To threaten the working poor with the dole as an alternative is indeed one of the most ill-thought-out, far-right, nasty, nonsensical policies to come from this coalition.
But then, combined with the attacks on the sick, disabled and vulnerable members of society, we have come to expect the idiotic from Cameron and co.
Policies first thought out on the playing fields at Eton cannot be further from the reality of ordinary people's experiences.
The self-employed working poor are now a small army. We deserve better. Come 2015 we have the power to vote this government out. Hopefully the Labour Party will recognise what a valuable resource the self-employed are and support us, not punish us for working.
Bernadette Horton blogs at mumvausterity.blogspot.co.uk