Self-employment is a significant form of employment in Europe, representing around 16% of the active population. Self-employed workers and their partners are now set to enjoy better social protection — including the right to maternity leave — under new EU legislation that takes effect on 5 August 2012. Paul Clarke reports.

More rights for self-employed workers

Directive 2010/41/EU on equal treatment between men and women engaged in self-employed activities repeals and replaces Directive 86/613/EEC to give new rights to millions of women in the labour market and particularly to strengthen female entrepreneurship. At present only one in three entrepreneurs in the EU is a woman and the European Commission made bridging this gender gap one of the main driving forces behind the new directive.

Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, said: "The new European law ensures full equality in practice between men and women in working life, promoting female entrepreneurship and allowing self-employed women to enjoy better social security protection."

The change considerably improves the protection of female self-employed workers and spouses or life partners of such workers who help with their business. They are granted a maternity allowance and a leave of at least 14 weeks, should they choose to take it. At EU level, this is the first time a maternity allowance has been granted to self-employed workers. Directive 2010/41/EU enables Member States to adopt positive action measures aimed at ensuring full equality between men and women in working life, for example by promoting business creation by women.

Available in the Official Journal of the European Union, the directive will be of particular significance to the 11% of self-employed workers in Europe who rely on the help of spouses and partners working on an informal basis in a small family business, such as a farm or a local doctor's practice. These "assisting spouses" tend to be completely dependent on their self-employed partner. As such, they are at a high risk of poverty in the event of divorce, their partner’s death or bankruptcy. They will, in future, have the right to social security coverage (such as pensions) on an equal basis to formal self-employed workers, if the Member State offers protection to such workers. This will help provide a stronger social safety net and help to prevent women from falling into poverty.

The directive also prohibits all forms of discrimination based on sex, whether direct or indirect, when establishing, equipping or extending a business, as well as when launching or extending any other form of self-employed activity.

Implementation in the UK

In January 2012, an MP asked Employment Minister Chris Grayling if there were any EU laws that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had still to implement. One of the two listed by Mr Grayling was Directive 2010/41/EU, with regard to which the minister said only that the Government was "considering the date for implementation". That position is unchanged at the time of writing, which may, however, be the result of the UK being somewhat ahead of most Member States in this area of social policy and already offering many of the benefits that the directive requires.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said that women who run their own business decide how long they want to take off when they have a baby and are already entitled to support.

"However," the FSB went on, "the directive does now provide for the option of a mandatory provision to provide maternity pay for assisting spouses — those who help with the running of their partner’s business but receive no financial reward. We hope that the UK Government, when implementing this directive, will make this provision optional for those who want to make use of it”.

Last reviewed 2 August 2012