‘The freelancer is a weed to be exterminated’

mathijs boumanThe self-employed are a weed that must be exterminated as soon as possible and the Christian Democrats have found a way of doing so, writes economist Mathijs Bouman.

Employers and workers are currently involved in a top-level debate about the scourge of our times: the self-employed or zzp’er. This pernicious weed is threatening to stifle everything trade unions and employers’ organisations have built together.

The zzp’er is a duplicitous so-and-so who puts on his entrepreneurial hat when it suits him only to morph into an employee when that is more convenient. He won’t pay WW (unemployment) or WIA (long-term disability) premiums but insists on a fat tax break nevertheless. He dodges the terms of the collective labour agreement but feels entitled to the funds set aside for training in his sector.

He uses one hand to grab whatever he thinks the tax office should give him while steering his heavily subsidised Mitsubishi Outlander with the other. Zzp’ers are scroungers who are undermining the solidarity which is keeping our country afloat.

Hostage-takers

As if that weren’t enough, they are also holding the cabinet hostage. To the VVD, the zzp’er presents himself as a tough entrepreneur capable of looking after himself. A few doors down, at the offices of the PvdA, he plays the down-trodden wage slave who has no social rights at all. The confusion caused by this has thrown the cabinet into total policy paralysis. The zzp’er looks on and smiles.

But there is hope for the Netherlands yet. Last week the Financieele Dagblad reported that Sybrand Buma has come up with a cunning plan. The CDA leader wants to kill two birds with one stone and tackle both the tax break for zzp’ers and the sick pay scheme for workers.

Scrapping the tax break would be good news for workers who would no longer face competition from collective labour agreement dodgers. Scrapping the current sick pay scheme would be good for employers who would see a reduction in labour costs.

Then employers’ and unions will meet in a conference room at the premises of the government advisory body SER  (zzp’ers are not invited) and before you can say ‘weed killer’ an agreement will be made.

Brilliant

It’s brilliant in its simplicity. A simple exchange of interests prevents SER from having to worry too much about the future of the Dutch labour market, social security reforms or a modern labour contract.

In 2010, when SER was pondering the pesky matter of zzp’ers in a report, it had already concluded that there was no cause for a fundamental rethink of labour relations, the tax system and the social system. The collective sigh of relief when SER penned that sentence could be heard throughout the polder.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: the rise of the zzp’er is definitely not a sign that labour market institutions need modernisation. Everything can remain as it was. If we simply scrap the tax break for zzp’ers and make them pay for a couple of compulsory insurances, the weeds will die all by themselves and then the polder garden will be neat and tidy once again.

Mathijs Bouman is a self-employed journalist, who thinks irony is a great stylistic device.

This column appeared earlier in the Financieele Dagblad