In 2022, the solo self-employment rate in Germany was approximately 4.2% of the working population (15-74), well below the European Union average (9.6%). Solo self-employed workers accounted for about 3.6% and 4.7% of the working population of women and men respectively, and they made up 50.6% of the total self-employed. In the period 2007-2022, there has been a decrease in the number of self-employed without employees of approximately -23.2%. Such decline was mainly due to the decrease of self-employed workers among women, young and middle-aged workers. Over the same period, the number of self-employed without employees has increased among late-career workers. Estimates show that almost 4.8% of the solo self-employed can be classified as economically dependent self-employed (i.e. solo self-employed workers who work mainly for one client and do not decide their working hours), a share slightly below the European Union average (5.0%).

In Germany, labour can be performed within three legal schemes. For many years the distinction between self-employed and employees was based on Section 84(1) located in the Commercial Code (Handelsgesetzbuch – HGB), which provides a legal definition of commercial agents as persons “essentially free to arrange their professional activities at their own discretion and decide when to perform a job.” Only in 2017 did the legislator introduce for the first time a definition of employment contract in the Civil Code (section 611a) based on previous case-law. With the aim to better protect self-employed workers in a condition of economic dependence, the German legal system has also embedded a third legal status, the so-called Arbeitnehmerahnliche Personen (employee-like person defined in section 12°(1) of the Tarifvertragsgesetz). They are basically self-employed and work for one client only or receive more than half of their income from a single client. Some of the statutory protection typical of employees (i.e. work permits, holidays and parental leave) as well as anti-discrimination law, laws on safety, and some collective rights (i.e. right to join a union and right to collective bargaining) are extended to these workers. Solo self-employed workers in liberal professions (Freiberufler) are instead mainly regulated by public law, but pension funds and other care service are managed by their professional bodies.

Focusing on collective representation, trade unions have a long tradition of representing self-employed workers, especially in the tertiary sector. During the first fieldwork, activities carried out by Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft (ver.di) to organise and defend solo self-employed workers were followed. Moreover, initiatives to support migrant bogus self-employed workers, both at the confederal level, within Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB), and in the construction sector, in Industriegewerkschaft Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt (IG BAU), were also analysed. Although German employer organisations are more focused on representing employers and big enterprises, the umbrella organisation Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände e. V. (BDA) was involved in the study, mainly because of its engagement in discussions about bogus self-employment. Several associations representing freelancers were also followed, such as the Verband der Gründer und Selbstständigen Deutschland e.V. (VGSD) and the network Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Selbstständigenverbände (bagsv). Finally, two cooperatives – one providing support to female entrepreneurs, WeiberWirtschaft, and one giving freelancers the opportunity to become employees, Smart – were analysed.

In the second fieldwork, we conducted specific case studies focusing on four collective actors. Within ver.di, we studied both ver.di Selbstständige, the cross-sectorial section representing solo self-employed workers, and ver.di art and culture, the union organising many self-employed artists. We also followed the activities organised by the freelance association VGSD and we could join an online group gathering Spanish-speaking migrants working for an online cleaning platform.

While conducting the first fieldwork in Germany, the researcher was hosted in Berlin at the Re: Work International Research Center, Humboldt University. During the second fieldwork she was instead hosted at the Centre Marc Bloch.