Taxes & business banking for the self-employed


Support for Freelancers: why is it so hard to access?

Last updated on Feb 21, 2020

Kate Bailey

Freelance Editor

Nov 28, 2019

A new workforce is slowly building itself outside the conventions we know - the Freelance sector. But, why is it so hard to get support? If you’re visiting us here on the blog, chances are you are already either aware or thinking about the freelancer life and realm. Over the last decade, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the freelancer lifestyle. Heck, we even have something called a ‘’digital nomad’’. And heck, even Estonia is offering visas and options for people to be eligible for a digital nomad visa. Really, what a brave new world.

Similarly, as we see a rise in kleptocracy and a decline of union culture and middle class - we are seeing a dog-eat-dog workforce. In many ways, we have to question if this is shaping the freelancer environment as well. All of this is to say: being a freelancer really does not come with any support either from governments based in the European Union or the United States, the U.K. or Australia. Throughout the course of our history we have seen this theme: when our laws struggle to keep up with the direction society takes.

For example, in German law, we can see clear and specific gaps when it comes to governing the practices of freelancers. Sure, someone can BE a freelancer, but actually, there is little support or recourse when it comes to protecting them in terms of the work they actually do or produce. So, maybe we could end this article now, and say well: support for freelancers stops and ends at legislation. But of course, it is much more complex than that.

When you work for a company, there are various things we take for granted. Like, an HR department that is obligated to listen to you. There is a legal system, that, if you meet legal requirements, you have specific pathways and recourse to have abuses, lack of payment or harassment dealt with. Of course, as we know from mainstream media this is a pathway fraught with its own struggles and burdens - usually involving non-disclosure agreements and lawyers.

But, for freelancers, the law can be a lot murkier. We have discussed the trappings of fake self employment on the blog before, but sadly, it can be a little harder to get an understanding of the definitions of your involvement with a company and therefore a lot harder to get recognition when it comes to legal pathways. The tough and undeniable reality is: the law has not kept up with the ever-changing workforce. That is why support is so hard to access. So, what options do freelancers have to protect themselves?

Firstly, a brief and quick refresher for those who might be here wondering if they have been trapped in ‘’fake self employment’’ before we move onto broader solutions.

German tax authorities, welfare funds and courts use an overall view approach, i.e. they do not look at one single factor but rather do assess the big picture. The main criteria are:

  • Freelancer does not have any employees of his/her own
  • Freelancer is essentially only working for one (main) client/contractor (the courts have developed a rule of thumb according to which someone is considered “scheinselbständig”, if he/she generates 5/6th or more of the total turnover from one client
  • Level of integration into the organisation of the employer (Eingliederung in den Betrieb des Auftraggebers); i.e. does the employee attend organisational staff meetings, company outings etc.
  • Employer also has salary employees (regular staff) doing the same kind of work as the freelancer does

If any of these points ring true to you, and you have been dealing with a single company in a way that feels like full-time employment, you should talk with the free services offered by the German government or a lawyer who specialises in workplace law. Moving on…

Heading Support Groups & Networks

The only thing more powerful than money (and big HR departments hellbent on protecting ‘’the company’’) is information. As we have suggested on this blog before, immersing into a freelancer support group or networks related to your field, is a great way to find like-minded individuals and peers and a way to broaden your reach in terms of building your business. Similarly, connecting with those who have been working in your field for the longest time is a great way to gather information about common mistreatment and malpractice when it comes to those freelancing.

Many of those abused or exploited as freelancers initially struggle to gather information about their situation. Not only are lawyers expensive, not only can it be daunting to report your situation to Government authorities without knowing what is going to happen - but there is often a plethora of confusing results returned by search engines when people try to find something similar that matches them.

Without a doubt, it is far more beneficial to have an in-person contact who has a similar business set up to you who is able to reflect back their personal and professional experiences - hopefully, those that can inform you of your next best steps. Now, these support groups and networks do not just have to be cultivated in a person. There are many professional groups on Facebook, LinkedIn and other digital platforms that will facilitate your connection with experience professionals. Many of whom are more than happy to assist those experiencing distress or exploitative situations in the workplace.

After all, and it is not surprising, freelancers can be very good at uniting together when one of their own finds themselves in a vulnerable situation - because as freelancers, we know it could be us. Of course, to read this information as it is, may be to stoke unwarranted anxieties or pitch a scenario of Freelancers vs. The World.

That is not the intention: but rather to pay heed to the real concerns faced by SOME of the freelancer community and to remind ourselves that without broader protections, we have to protect against vulnerabilities. And, likely, professional support groups and networks would likely agree with this - better safe than sorry! 

Heading Payment researching

One of the biggest issues in industry exploiting freelancers comes to payment. It could be that you are consistently paid late (of which there is a great deal of resources for freelancers) or that you are being ‘’lowballed’’, ‘’ripped off’’ or downright lied to about the financial status or capabilities of a company in order to receive the compensation you deserve. However, it is 2019 and the Internet does have some resources here to help. If you are concerned that a company or entity you are completing work for is trying to underpay or undermine you - you can research salaries and payments for roles equivalent across the board and present them to your client or contracting party to establish the validity of your fee.

Regardless, a client or contracting party can refuse to pay this fee but the reality is you then have created a paper trail of you establishing your value or worth when it is brought into question. Again, when you have the rights of an employee, you have many options for recourse. It could be that you are being paid less based on a discrimination based prejudice, and the German law is now quite clear on this for employees and there are some protections for freelancers pending the agreement or circumstances of your engagement.

It could also be that you are being incorrectly compensated for pensions and insurances - a highly illegal act in an employee or employer basis. But these parameters are a fantastic mile marker for understanding what you can expect when completing work. Often, a client or contractor unfamiliar with working with freelancers will questions you value or high-rate - but are the taking into consideration the burdens of pension and insurance when you engage with them?

Just because you are not a formal employee, does not mean they are not financially obliged (even not legally) to provide fair, industry-standard compensation for the work you do. So, research what is applicable to you when it comes to payments, and return to a problem client or contracting party with your evidence. Even if they have not broken the law by trying to ‘’rip you off’’, their response to your calling out of their exploitation could indeed be grounds for further recourse. If it all sounds a little brutal, I would refer you again to talk or research in support groups or networks - this is a widespread problem for freelancers.

Heading Industry Bodies and Associations

Depending on the industry or field in which you work there could be professional bodies and associations that can assist you. Problematically for freelancers in Germany, these resources and bodies are often only available to access with a knowledge of the German language. That said, it is always worth exploring. Many professions require a deep contextual understanding to comprehend the exploitation or abuse that can occur in the course of completing or handing over work.

Even if industry bodies or associations exist merely to provide a more vocational support, again, in a context of limited resources and recourse, it can be a great idea to check in and verify the nature of your complaints or experiences with those who are also working in their field. From artists to those in the food industry, there are many great options in the German professional landscape who might be able to assist you to understand your situation better.

It is a brave new world indeed for freelancers, and it will be interesting to see how occupational law and workplace law adjusts and evolves to consider freelancers in a more legitimate light and provide real, direct recourse options throughout their legal systems. But, for now, we hope it is good to at least have some starting points if you ever find yourself in a sticky situation.