EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Self-employed person

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 to an employee, who is subordinate to and dependent on an employer. A 2009 report from Eurofound on self-employed workers sets out the different definitions used and presents a comparative overview of the industrial relations and employment and working conditions of self-employed workers in the European Union.

Self-employment tends to be concentrated in specific occupations, such as farmers, professionals, shopkeepers and construction workers. Not only are there many categories of self-employed people, but there are significant differences within these categories, for instance among liberal professionals, workers in hotels and restaurants and female helper spouses. According to Eurostat figures, the overall EU average share of self-employed workers in the labour force remained relatively stable at 14% in 2016, although this represents a slight decline from the 2008 and 1997 levels of 15.7% and 17.2% respectively. Two out of three were men (67%), over half (55%) were aged 45 or over, about a third (35%) had tertiary education and 7 in 10 (71%) were own account owners (they had no employees).

The range and diversity of self-employed workers have resulted in assorted forms of regulation. EU employment law addresses the self-employed mainly in 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 number of self-employed workers in the EU, for example by encouraging Member States to reduce tax and social security obstacles to this form of economic activity.

Free movement and self-employed people

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.

(TFEU, 2008)

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) reinforced these treaty provisions by defining a worker as any person engaged in economic activity. This definition ensures that all treaty provisions covering the free movement of workers also apply to self-employed people.

A number of directives have been adopted to promote the mutual recognition of diverse national systems of qualifications and their regulation, as well as the regulation of specific professional qualifications (lawyers, doctors and architects). Council Directive 89/48/EEC aimed to establish a general system for the recognition of higher education diplomas awarded on the completion of professional education and training of at least three years’ duration. Despite these legal moves, however, the free movement of self-employed people – 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, which allowed 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.

The equal treatment of self-employed people extends beyond gender equality . Council Directive 2000/43/EC – which establishes 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/EC , which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, contains an identical provision.

Self-employed people and access to social protection

In 2017, the Commission presented a proposal for a Council Recommendation on access to social protection for workers and the self-employed. In line with the European Pillar of Social Rights , this proposal aims to set a direction for Member States to support access to social protection for all workers and the self-employed, in particular for those who – due to their employment status – are not sufficiently covered by social security schemes. More specifically, the recommendation aims:

  • to close formal coverage gaps by ensuring that workers and the self-employed in comparable conditions can adhere to corresponding social security systems
  • to offer them adequate effective coverage, so that they can build up and claim adequate entitlements
  • to facilitate the transfer of social security entitlements from one job to the next
  • to provide workers and the self-employed with transparent information about their social security entitlements and obligations

See also: atypical work; casual worker; economically dependent worker; employee; entrepreneurship; free movement and social security; mobility of workers; occupational mobility; 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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