Changing face of self-employment in Spain

The rates of self-employment in Spain have decreased slightly in recent years, despite remaining higher than the EU average. Recent figures indicate that an increasing proportion of the self-employed are women, and the group is reporting higher levels of educational attainment. The proportion of self-employed people in new sectors and occupations is growing.

The Spanish Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs published a report in February 2004 analysing the basic features of self-employment in Spain (Empleo Autónomo y Empleo Asalariado: Análisis de las características y comportamiento del autoempleo en España - Self-employment and salaried employment: Analysis and characteristics of self-employment in Spain ). The report highlights in particular the link between self-employment and female employment, and looks at self-employment as a way of encouraging more women to enter the labour market.

The total number of self-employed people in Spain reached 2.2 million in 2001, showing an upward trend since 1991, when it was 1.9 million. Also, the proportion of self-employment compared with total employment in Spain was higher than the EU average in 2001: 16.2% compared to 12.4% (excluding agricultural workers) (Labour Force Survey, 2001, Eurostat). Despite the growth in the numbers of self-employed, the rate relative to total employment has actually gone down between 1991 and 2001, though not as much as the EU average (rates in 1991 were 17.2% in Spain and 16.1% for the EU average). The reduction in Spain is mainly due to the remarkable increase in salaried employment.

A considerable number of self-employed people in Spain work on their own with no employees, and self-employment is more common among men than women. Also, older workers are more likely to become self-employed (see Figure 1), and a significant percentage of self-employed workers have attained an educational level only of compulsory or secondary level (Figure 2). The retail, transport, and hotels and restaurants sectors report the greatest percentages of self-employment. Self-employed people tend to work mainly in a managerial capacity.

Self-employment by age group
Self-employment by education level

However, in general the profile of self-employment is evolving and the same trends are observed as for the Spanish labour market as a whole. Thus, the gender gap is being reduced (the number of self-employed women has gone up by 29% in the last 10 years, compared with 11% among men) and the educational levels of the self-employed are increasing, especially among women. The sharpest increase in the rate of self-employment has been seen in two sectors: financial services and real estate, and business services.

Self-employment in Spain is characterised by a number of additional features:

  • There is some evidence to suggest that self-employment acts as ‘shelter’ employment for salaried workers in times of economic downturn.
  • Research finds that the main route to self-employment is via salaried employment, although in the recent past (average growth between 1991 and 2001) the highest increase has been reported in the transition from unemployment to self-employment (see Figure 3).
  • The rise in self-employment is not linked to the growing weight of the services sector in terms of total employment in Spain.
  • There seems to be a positive link between the adoption of new work organisation models and the rise of self-employment, particularly for self-employed workers who work part time. This group has increased by 5.6% each year from 1991 to 2001, compared with the 1.3% annual growth in full-time self-employment. As a result, the percentage share of part-time self-employed workers among the total number of self-employed has risen from 3.3% in 1991 to 4.8% in 2001, and is substantially higher for women (10.9%).
Entry into self-employment

Finally, the report maintains that self-employment is improving the labour situation of women, especially concerning their status. While 33.2% of managers and bosses in total employment in 2001 were women, this share went up to 36.4% in the case of self-employed people. The difference is more remarkable among those who are recently self-employed (less than a year), where there was a 44.7% share of female managers and bosses in 2001.

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