A new standard work contract aims to protect freelancers from sexual harassment

Contractors have freedom but few legal protections.
Contractors have freedom but few legal protections.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Americans believe deeply in freedom, but liberty can have drawbacks. Take being a freelancer, for example, which liberates workers from typical employee benefits and legal protections, like the right to sue for sexual harassment under workplace civil rights laws.

One in five US workers is now a contractor, according to a January 2018 NPR poll. That means 20% of the national workforce has little recourse when faced with bullies and harassers on the job. Victims are free to take the abuse or quit, losing pay and quite possibly future work opportunities, which is a particularly tough blow for those with no unemployment benefits.

Now, two businesses that aim to standardize contracts for freelance work, Fiverr and AND CO, are trying to close that gap, creating what they call “the first standardized freelance contract with built-in sexual harassment protections.” It outlines the terms of a respectful work relationship and what happens if these are breached.

“[M]ost freelancers do not have institutional resources like a Human Resource department or even governmental bodies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to turn to in a time of need,” the companies explain in a statement.

The new contract explicitly states that harassment by clients or staff isn’t tolerated, which may seem obvious but isn’t a fundamental aspect of most freelance arrangements. The agreement also gives freelancers the right to terminate an arrangement if offending behavior continues after the client has been informed of it. A contractor who quits on these grounds must then be paid in full for the project or the month—depending on the terms of their arrangement with the client—and must receive that pay within 30 days. 

Sounds decent, right? Well, it is. But it’s also not much, as the companies also admit. “We recognize this is a small step in a much longer journey, but it’s an important one,” they state.

After all, a big problem with harassment in the workplace is that it’s awkward to report in the first place, and all the more so when the perpetrator of the abuse is responsible for the paychecks. Despite the new clauses, contractors who are harassed by the clients who hired them aren’t very likely to feel comfortable demanding that abuses stop—not if they want to work for that client again. And few freelancers who are in an office on a contract basis will find it easy to complain about abusive staff with permanent positions.

Then there’s the fact that “harassment” isn’t defined in the new contract. In other words, what constitutes offensive or inappropriate behavior isn’t actually outlined in the agreement. And harassers’ standards for appropriateness are famously different from those of victims on the other end of unwanted advances or worse.

Quartz asked Sam Katzen, director of public relations at Fiverr, about the added obstacles contractors face and whether the new language is sufficiently strong or specific enough to provide real protection. He replied in an e-mail, “While any freelancer must contend with going through enforcement in the case of a breach, having a contract in place makes a breach less likely than not having one at all.” Katzen also notes that the goal of the added clause is to create awareness of expectations and to “provoke cultural change.”

Change has indeed been a long time coming. Cornell University professor Lin Farley may have coined the term “sexual harassment” in the 1970s, but novelist Upton Sinclair had already documented such abuse in Chicago meatpacking plants in his 1906 work In the Jungle. Similarly, a 1908 Harper’s Bazaar article included this anecdote (pdf) about one New York City  stenographer’s job search:

The doctor was very kind and seemed to like my appearance and references; as to salary, he offered me $15 a week, with a speedy prospect of more. As I was leaving his office, feeling that at last I was launched safely upon the road to a good living, he said casually, ‘I have an auto; and as my wife doesn’t care for that sort of thing, I shall expect you to accompany me frequently on pleasure trips.’

The stenographer never showed up for the job and lost other work opportunities because of her encounter with the good doctor, explaining in the magazine, “After that experience I was ill for two weeks; a result of my hard work, suffering and discouragement.”

The #MeToo movement publicized the abuses of rich and famous bosses. Perhaps along with a growing freelance force’s insistence on updated contract language that bars harassment and gives free agents grounds to claim a breach, the growing cultural awareness of sexual harassment will finally make stories like the stenographer’s a thing of the past. As it stands, workers in the US aren’t quite free of this pernicious threat yet.