For many self-employed people it is a source of frustration: their image has turned from victim to villain in the past year. Especially in sectors such as healthcare, education and childcare, there are many complaints about employees who give up their permanent job and are then hired as self-employed. They get more income and more freedom, while colleagues with a smaller club pay for the less popular roster services. Schools and healthcare institutions increasingly have to fill their vacancies with hired workers because there are too few applicants. Hiring is usually more expensive, so budgets run out faster.
Things sometimes get tough on social media and on the specialized websites for self-employed people without employees. “Zzp’ers destroy care. Drive up in a fat BMW, do not take responsibility, do not report and all extra administrative tasks fall on the plate of the staff,” read one of the comments on Twitter when the NOS reported last month that healthcare institutions would like to get rid of their self-employed personnel. On the ZiPconomy website you can mainly find proponents of self-employed work. But there is also concern there: “What I do worry about is the ever-growing group of ‘flying in’ self-employed professionals in the healthcare sector,” writes user Bea at the end of February. “They come to run a shift and are gone again, sometimes they add another shift in the area. Irresponsible number of hours? No relationship with clients who all often have a large backpack, no knowledge of files.”
The self-employed in the care sector now has an image problem, says Lex Tabak, consultant and owner of the website zzp-erindezorg.nl. Tabak, who as a nurse already made the transition from paid employment to a self-employed existence in 2003, has been writing about this subject since 2006. He is angry about employers in the healthcare sector who are now complaining that they are getting into trouble because employees are leaving to continue as self-employed. “Suddenly they give themselves the victim role. While they themselves have not looked after their permanent staff all these years.”
Employees often hear when they are scheduled on a monthly basis; that makes it difficult to make good arrangements with childcare or to plan social activities
Healthcare organizations are still very old-fashioned, says Tabak. You can see this, for example, in the timetable. Employees often hear when they are scheduled on a monthly basis; that makes it difficult to make good arrangements with childcare or to plan social activities. “In the business world, those schedules are usually fixed for the whole year, which gives a much better overview.” Due to short-term planning and staff shortages, employees always have to perform extra shifts on an ad hoc basis. “And for the gaps that remain, they call the zzp mediation agency. They always come to help one day, which is restless for everyone, for colleagues and for patients. With better planning, they would know months in advance what is still needed and then the self-employed person can also come for a longer period of time.”
The number of flex workers in the Netherlands is growing too impetuously, politicians, trade unions and policy advisers have been saying for years. Of those flex workers, which also include temporary workers, an increasing number hire themselves out as self-employed. In December, Statistics Netherlands announced that the number of self-employed persons without employees had grown by 127,000 to 1.2 million in one year. That is 12.5 percent of the 9.6 million people with paid work. The increase was greatest in the care and welfare professions.
Where does that enthusiasm come from? Money and freedom play the most important role at the moment. The disadvantages seem to weigh less heavily in the current labor market, even though they are plentiful. Anyone who is hired as a self-employed person does not receive continued payment in the event of illness, can become unemployed from one day to the next, does not accrue unemployment benefits and does not have a supplementary pension later on. For the consultant who can declare 130 euros or more per hour, it is not that difficult to cover those risks themselves – although that group also does not always have the discipline to make neat money or take out insurance. But for the group of self-employed people in low-paid jobs, such as parcel delivery and domestic work, it is often impossible to make the trade-off between income now and later.
For decades, employers have been the biggest driver of the self-employed construction. Not so much because of the differences between salaries and hiring rates, but because of the flexibility. If the order book is doing well, extra people can be deployed quickly. If the economy is bad or if the organization needs people with a different expertise, you can get rid of your hired employees in no time. From the 1910s, some sectors, such as home care, forced almost all their permanent staff to continue doing the same work as self-employed, but cheaper.
Platform companies such as Uber and Deliveroo built their entire revenue model on the efforts of freelancers. Their argument was that they were not an employer, but an intermediary. The Supreme Court will pass judgment on this construction at the end of March. Probably then, because the verdict has already been postponed several times.
New power relations
Perhaps the highest courts find this file just as complicated as the government. At the Ministry of Social Affairs, successive ministers have already gritted their teeth on this subject. How do we maintain entrepreneurship, protect the weak in the labor market and ensure that everyone contributes to social security through premiums and taxes?
The balance of power is shifting in the tight labor market
Meanwhile, the balance of power in the tight labor market has shifted. In sectors where salaries have lagged behind for a long time, such as healthcare and education, it is now even more lucrative to make the transition to the self-employed. And the employers who were satisfied for years with their mix of permanent employees and flexible hired workers are seeing the ratios go out of balance. And so they are now the advocates of fewer self-employed people. Too easy, says self-employed consultant Tabak. He also sees that many people are now self-employed because they earn more that way. But the institutions do not have to accept that. “Make sure you have good schedules, give employees a say and more autonomy. Most switchers are not interested in entrepreneurship, they want control over their work.”
Jan-Willem Duim (40) from Amersfoort
‘I feel like I’m worth more now’
“On Monday I work at a school in Amersfoort. Tuesday in Monnickendam. Wednesday and Thursday in Hoevelaken. Friday I am with my two children. I’m glad that I have more flexibility because of being self-employed.
I worked as an employee for twelve years when I noticed that many substitutes who came to work in my class through an employment agency quickly dropped out. My impression was that this was because they themselves had no say in the type of school or even the class in which they went to work. And that especially the temporary employment agencies benefited from the extra income on top of the hourly wage of the teacher. As a self-employed person, I can choose which schools I work at, and do a better job because I know where my strengths lie. For example, I like a class with behavioral challenges much more than a class where students only work neatly. Then I have to be sharper and I can do more for the students.
I now work at a school for a maximum of eight weeks, because I would like to help as many salaried teachers as possible to gain breathing space. By giving them a day off every now and then you can relieve them enormously. It is often said that freelancers are very expensive. But in the long run, schools actually save money because the use of self-employed workers can help ease the workload of salaried teachers. I feel like I’m worth more now than if I were in front of the same class all year.
I think it’s nonsense that the self-employed in education are money wolves. I have set up a platform where education professionals and clients can find each other. Many real estate agents, stewards, civil servants and top athletes report there, who are also authorized to teach in addition to their work. They often earn more at their other work than as a self-employed person in education.
The average self-employed teacher asks about sixty euros per hour. That may sound like a lot, but that might save you thirty euros. In addition, I pay my own insurance. And at the end of each year I transfer money to a pension fund for the self-employed, which invests my money.
Eventually I would like to work as an employee again. When my children are in secondary school, for example, I think more stability would be nice.”
René Dongelmans (54) from Beetgem
‘Employers treat us like uniform sausage’
“I have been working as a psychiatric nurse for 35 years, specializing mainly in crisis situations in a closed ward. That means that I work with people who end up in a psychosis or who are seriously suicidal. It’s hard work, but I get energy from helping those people. Often, in such a plight, someone does not know that things are not going well. The moment someone realizes that he or she needs help, feels very grateful. That’s why it’s manageable.
Eventually I started to resent that my work was not well paid and that my life was determined by a schedule that someone else made for me. I had been in the highest possible scale in my collective labor agreement for about twenty years and had no prospect of further growth in my salary. That was only possible if I went to further education and then started working in a different position. But I didn’t want that at all. I love my job.
To have more control over my own life and more time for my family, I became self-employed about five years ago. I gave up a lot in my private life when I worked as an employee. My life consisted only of work. We nurses are expected to provide tailor-made care: determine for each individual what suits them best. But we ourselves are treated as uniform sausage. We have to fit into the picture created by the employer and work when they want us to work. Early services, evenings, nights. If you ask if it can be done differently, there is no room for that. Now I have about three different clients with whom I plan my services for six months. This way I ensure that I am sure of a job, but also that I have more time for my family.
It’s a pity that we freelancers are seen as grasping grabbers. Although I have improved in terms of income, that is mainly because I can make my own choices about my pension and disability insurance. Because I have worked as an employee for a very long time, I now have to set aside a smaller part of my salary for my pension. Many healthcare institutions have to deal with enormous absenteeism among salaried employees. Because I now have much more freedom, I enjoy my work more and I am healthier. That’s why I never fail. I hear from colleagues in paid employment that they really appreciate that.”
A version of this article also appeared in the March 4, 2023 newspaper