The exact numbers of business owners who earn less than minimum wage is unclear, but Unizo puts the number at 15%. Last week, the Neutral Union for the Self-Employed (NSZ) said its polls show that 18% of fully self-employed people are making less than €833 a month net, less than the poverty line, which is set at €972 a month.
The figures should, both organisations point out, also be considered in the context of the business income not necessarily making up the whole of the household income: Many self-employed people have a partner in employment.
Nevertheless, even a conservative estimate shows that the rate of poverty among the self-employed is about four times higher than among other people in the workforce, and the difference between the two extremes of earnings is also greater.
In the first six months of this year, 1,100 self-employed applied from either Tussenstap or Efrem, both of which help small businesses in trouble. That is nearly 50% more than last year but not the whole picture. According to Pol Vermoere of Tussenstap, the self-employed are more likely to seek other options for help before coming to his organisation. “For everyone who comes to us, there are 10 others who don’t,” he told De Standaard.
The government’s response has been to change the way the self-employed pay social security – one of the main sources of problems. At present, self-employed people pay social security based on the earnings they made three years ago, and the proposal is to pay based on the income of the current year.
However, commented Unizo director-general Karel Van Eetvelt, businesses will then have to estimate the current year’s earnings and could face hefty penalties if the estimate turns out to have been wrong. “Pretending that a reform of the calculation of social charges will solve the problem doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Unizo proposes a system that would allow the self-employed to make provisional payments for the future, which could then be refunded if the business gets into difficulties. In 2011, just under 20,000 self-employed people were excused paying any social security because their incomes were too low.