Not only in Berlin: In the arts, in the cultural and creative industries, a disproportionately large number of freelancers and self-employed people work in “atypical employment”. What characterizes it?
Solo self-employed combine employee and employer characteristics in equal measure. They bear full economic and organizational responsibility for their employment, from social security to the design of their workplace. In the best case scenario, they can work independently, design their market presence and order acquisition independently. In reality, this self-determination comes up against the limits of economic framework conditions. So often unloved jobs have to be accepted in order to generate income. Then advantages turn into economic dependencies.
Do politicians and trade unions know enough about the situation and special needs of such creatives?
First of all, politics and trade unions are two different things. And, very important: very heterogeneous groups are combined as creative people. There are workers who are in line with the market, economically well-positioned and who work in popular areas, such as games development and design. But there are also many who work no less seriously in barely lucrative areas or who are not purely profit-oriented. Funding and labor market policy is therefore very difficult for politics, as it would have to cover a huge spectrum in order to be targeted. For unions, we have to be honest, the representation of self-employed people is still unfamiliar. Due to Corona, we have been able to pay more attention to these workers. In the meantime there are also good studies that show the wide spread in the work and life reality of this group, for example “women and men in the cultural market” presented by the German Cultural Council. The question now is how intensively results are perceived and what conclusions are drawn in political action.
What are the problem areas for the self-employed in social terms?
First of all, those who meet the eligibility requirements can experience the blessings of the Artists’ Social Fund. They are unique in Europe, but only help a part. Everyone else has to deal with the problem of the minimum income threshold for their health insurance. Thanks to our intervention, this limit was recently halved, but it is still a huge financial hurdle for many. Many cultural workers can also set little or nothing aside for their age. Something is happening now politically. A pension obligation is anchored in the coalition agreement, I hope that a corresponding draft law will come in the next few weeks. And – a direct Corona experience: The question of a previously outstanding general access to unemployment insurance for the self-employed must also be completely reopened.
How is Verdi adapting to the new clientele?
For us, the freelance and self-employed are no longer a new clientele. However, Verdi is the only one among the DGB unions to have its own section for self-employed. We lobby for the self-employed and have the strength of a total of two million members and the entire DGB behind us. This should not be underestimated in the political arena and gives us a much stronger position than individual professional associations. A second task is to make the individual colleagues fit for the market through training and advice. It is important to consider the competitive situation in which they actually find themselves, but to emphasize common interests. We also have specialist areas for more job-specific issues.
Corona hits self-employed artists and cultural workers particularly hard. What has Verdi done to support it, what else is the union doing?
We provide an incredibly wide range of information. Our Corona info pool is considered the best nationwide in terms of scope and topicality. We have done countless consultations, individually, also as video conferences for groups and in cooperation with other associations. And we became politically active. Because of federalism, there was a lot at the state level and the results were quite different.
Berlin did not do badly …
The lobbying work in the federal states definitely helped, in Berlin with the most. Even the first 5,000 euros in emergency aid for small businesses, self-employed people and freelancers, which Berlin gave in March, was great, unbureaucratic help, which the Senator for Economics and Finance also supported. That was exemplary and also aimed at the outstanding entrepreneur’s wages, which many creative people lost due to a drop in orders. The Berlin Senate has campaigned for this at federal level – where the principle still prevails that the cost of living is not eligible – while other countries have laboriously launched small scholarship programs. Berlin was also unique when it came to the continued payment of fees for independent music school teachers. Now there is the scholarship program …
Corona also refers to very fundamental problems. For example: Is Hartz IV the only and appropriate protection for many in the cultural sector, who are also often slowed down longer than others?
The question arises all the more because the debate that short-time work or unemployment benefits were previously linked exclusively to contributions has now reached a new level. We are now talking about taxpayers’ money that should benefit companies and their employees if they are renewed. However, the self-employed also paid taxes. The crisis shows once again that we urgently need to talk about justice and raise the issue of redistribution more in the political discourse.
Veronika Mirschel has been the head of the self-employed department of the United Services Union Verdi since 2000. Before that, the Düsseldorf native worked 15 years as a freelancer in an office community in journalism.