Matija Raos, 33, is head of the Croatian Independent Professionals Association and a founder of the European Freelancers Week. For years he has worked extreme hours consulting clients as a creative strategist. And then worked overtime to help other freelancers.
Even now as he undergoes chemotherapy, Matija is typing e-mails to help coordinate the upcoming European Freelancers Week. His messages are shorter but still full of passion for the cause. Matija has long fought to fix the system so freelancers don't fall down cracks.
He didn’t expect to fall down a crack himself. In May Matija started experiencing stomach pain. By July he was in hospital undergoing treatment for a tumor in his colon. He remains there today, unable to eat let alone work.
As in many countries, freelancers in Croatia must operate in a grey zone without access to normal social security. While Matija has access to basic health care, he requires expensive additional treatment. He will eventually get a monthly sickness benefit, but it takes up to four months to come into effect, and won’t cover all his costs. His bills are already mounting up.
When word of Matija’s illness spread, there wasn’t a freelancer in Croatia who didn’t want to help out. He is the person, after all, who ran the very association that supports freelancers with their problems. His colleagues at CIPA set up a crowdfunding page and promoted it with the hashtag #togetherforMatija.
Support flew in, not just from Croatia but across Europe. Matija has been active in building up the European freelancing and coworking movements. There are few people involved in these fields who haven’t been inspired by his seemingly boundless enthusiasm and generosity.
Within a few days, #togetherforMatija had raised almost €40,000. In a Facebook post, Matija said the outpouring of generosity “made me cry.”
Matija is lucky to have developed such a supportive network. But what about other freelancers who aren’t so well connected? More scalable solutions are needed.
In the short term, freelancers should join together in cooperatives and mutual societies, which are non-profit organizations that work for the benefit of their members.
In the Netherlands, independent workers can join a Broodfond, a collective sickness fund. They pay a fixed monthly contribution and get a defined monthly pay-out in the event of a serious illness. More than 12,000 freelancers have joined one of these locally-based support groups. The idea is now being piloted in the UK.
Another example is the SMart cooperative, which now has over 90,000 members across nine European countries. Through SMart, freelancers effectively employ themselves. They send their invoices through the cooperative, and in exchange get an employment contract, regular monthly income, employee-style health and retirement benefits, and build up a fund for rainy days. In some countries, SMart also provides coworking spaces, workshops and training events for its members.
For general support, freelancers can join an association such as CIPA, which offers lobbying, workshops and advice on developing an independent career. There are freelancers’ associations in at least ten European countries. They network together through the European Forum of Independent Professionals, which lobbies in Brussels for more recognition of independent workers (one of Matija’s many voluntary roles is vice-president of EFIP).
These work-arounds and self-created solutions are useful in the short term. But as the number of people working outside of traditional employment grows, so too does the need for systemic change.
Governments must adapt social security systems so they are no longer connected to a single job. Freelancers should be able to pay for social security on the same terms as employees. There should be no fixed minimum monthly payments for health or retirement benefits; rather, payments should fluctuate with changing income. Independent workers shouldn’t have to pay higher rates for the same social services, as is in the case in some EU countries.
And we need general sickness funds that protects all workers in times of hardship, whether they are independent or permanently employed. Otherwise stories like Matija’s will become all too normal.
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