EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Self-employed person

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Eurostat’s European Union Labour Force Survey defines self-employed people as ‘those … who work in their own business, professional practice or farm for the purpose of earning a profit, and who employ no other persons’. A self-employed person may also be defined as an independent worker, in contrast with an employee, who is subordinate to and dependent on an employer. A report for the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions (March 2009), Self-employed workers: industrial relations and working conditions, provides a detailed synopsis of the different definitions used.


Self-employed people are generally recognised as being concentrated in a number of occupations: farmers, professionals, shopkeepers, helper-spouses and construction workers. There is thus a wide range of categories of self-employed persons, and there are significant differences among them; for instance, between liberal professionals, workers in hotels and restaurants, and female helper-spouses. According to Employment in Europe 2009 (7.25Mb PDF), the overall EU average share of self-employed workers in the labour force remained relatively stable at 15.7% in 2008, although this represents a small fall from the 1997 level of 17.2%. The report suggests that the fall may be attributed to cash-flow difficulties and the ‘credit crunch’ creating particular problems for small businesses. More men than women are self-employed in the EU workforce – 18.8% of all working men and 11.9% of all working women. The diversity of the self-employed has attracted diverse forms of regulation. EU employment law addresses the self-employed mainly in narrowly specific areas such as free movement, equal treatment, and in the European Employment Strategy. The entrepreneurship pillar of the European Employment Strategy aims to increase the numbers of self-employed workers in the EU, particularly by encouraging the Member States to reduce tax and social security obstacles to this form of economic activity.

Free movement and self-employed persons

Article 53 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (previously Article 47 of the EC Treaty) provides for the free movement of the self-employed, stating:

In order to make it easier for persons to take up and pursue activities as self-employed persons, the European Parliament and the Council shall, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, issue directives for the mutual recognition of diplomas, certificates and other evidence of formal qualifications and for the coordination of the provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the taking-up and pursuit of activities as self-employed persons.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) reinforced these Treaty provisions by defining worker as all persons engaged in economic activity. This definition ensures that all Treaty provisions covering the free movement of workers also apply to self-employed persons.

A number of directives have been adopted to promote the mutual recognition of diverse national systems of qualification and their regulation, and the regulation of particular professional qualifications (lawyers, doctors, architects). Council Directive 89/48/EEC aimed to establish a general system for the recognition of higher education diplomas awarded on completion of professional education and training of at least three years’ duration. Despite these legal moves, free movement of self-employed persons, particularly self-employed professionals, has remained relatively low.

Equal treatment and self-employed persons

The directive on the application of the principle of equal treatment between women and men engaged in an activity in a self-employed capacity, and on the protection of self-employed women during pregnancy and maternity is significant. Political agreement was also reached in the revision of Directive 86/613/EEC in November 2009 allowing self-employed female workers to have the same access to maternity leave as salaried workers and assisting spouses to have access to the same social protection systems as formally self-employed workers.

Equal treatment of self-employed persons extends beyond gender equality. Council Directive 2000/43, establishing the principle of equal treatment for all, irrespective of racial or ethnic origin, applies to ‘all persons… in relation to: (a) conditions for access to employment, to self-employment and to occupation, including selection criteria and recruitment conditions, whatever the branch of activity and at all levels of the professional hierarchy, including promotion’. Council Directive 2000/78, which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, contains an identical provision.

See also: atypical work; casual worker; contract of employment; discrimination; economically dependent worker; employee; entrepreneurship; equality between women and men; free movement and social security; homeworking; mobility of workers; occupational mobility; portability of social security rights; professional qualifications; worker.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


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