A Perspective on Compulsory Disability Insurance (AOV)

How many sips of water does it take to fill the world’s biggest swimming pool? Vibeke Mascini answered this question during an evening about Mister Motley’s De Kleine Kunstkritiek (A Little Art Criticism) at De Groen Collection. By doing so, Mascini made something that seemed ineffable tangible. Some things are too large or abstract for us to really understand what they entail; a more personal approach can bridge that gap, as Mascini illustrated that evening. Maybe this could also help make the incomprehensible situation surrounding mandated disability insurance for zzp’ers (self-employed persons without employees) graspable, or at least make the context and the consequences more tangible.


In May of 2019, representatives of Shell and Philips admitted during a roundtable discussion in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives) on tax payments by multinationals that they do not pay corporate income tax. They also stated that they are acting according to the law. Normally I don’t let myself get upset about things like that because a little voice in my head says, well, that’s how things go in our capitalist world. But I heard about this news item while I was transferring my VAT payment to the Belastingdienst (National Tax Bureau). In one click, I watched my bank balance shrink, and suddenly it was there: that bitter feeling. Why should I pay taxes when the richest companies in the Netherlands don’t have to or have to do so to a lesser extent? Because I can’t stash my profits in the Cayman Islands? Or because as a one-man band I can’t make my own tax agreements? It is undoubtedly a financially complex comparison, but as far as I’m concerned it does reveal a tendency: the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. A few weeks later a new episode of bitter feelings followed, due to the planned compulsory disability insurance for zzp’ers.

Since graduating, I have been working six days a week as a rule, and yet for a long time I made less than minimum wage. When I started out as a zzp’er, I was sometimes paid an hourly rate that was equal to that of a permanent employee: the same salary, minus all taxes, insurances, and pension funds. I can already hear people saying, ‘Why would you accept that?’ From my point of view, I had to accept it in order to make money and at the same time work towards a future in the field I wanted to work in. A shocking reality that can no longer be ignored. Among workers in the cultural sector, I now think of myself as one of the ‘lucky ones’. After years of hard work, I can finally live off of my work and have some stability in my life. But the hard work hasn’t let up, and I sometimes notice that I’m reaching the end of my rope – on the one hand, due to the six different projects I’m working on to make ends meet, and on the other hand because of the unstable and unsustainable character of existence as a zzp’er. I have to keep working six days a week because otherwise I wouldn’t have enough work and thus money coming in. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I can no longer keep this up for whatever reason. In that sense, disability insurance sounds good to me; it’s nice to have a safety net should things go wrong. But I don’t earn enough to take out disability insurance, let alone build up a pension.

I read in an article by Aukje van Roessel in the Groene Amsterdammer that zzp’ers are actually unfair competitors compared with permanent employees. Zzp’ers are actually cheaper due to the lack of compulsory insurance and other social contributions. That’s a fair point if you ignore the context, but the context is very important if you want to understand the situation: the small sips that fill up the swimming pool. The word ‘unfair’ in particular did not sit well with me. I don’t think that most zzp’ers intentionally enter the labour market uninsured with the aim of becoming more attractive than employees as a kind of ‘living on the edge’ mentality. For example, I myself have never had the choice of a permanent contract; being a zzp’er is the only option for me to even generate an income. What’s more, in my time as a zzp’er I have seen few vacancies for permanent employment. If there were permanent jobs, they went to others with more experience. The fact that clients today prefer zzp’ers to permanent employees is in line with Aukje van Roessel’s article. Yet the question is, what has caused this? And whose responsibility is it if the share of zzp’ers in the labour market assumes unsustainable proportions for our social system? Learning to live in uncertainty: that’s what my career consists of. Like most zzp’ers in the cultural sector: they’re on their own, but they’re not lone rangers. Just how fair is this situation really? I never chose to compete with permanent employees. The only thing I was ever looking for – and still am looking for, even – is a bit of stability and a ‘fair’ income. As I see it, the cause isn’t the competition between employees and freelancers, but the flexibilisation of the labour market.

The safety net of disability insurance is very necessary for many zzp’ers because working conditions have become extremely precarious and untenable, but especially because happiness and misfortune are unevenly distributed in life. Insurance, as a collective provision, is a means for solidarity and for every individual’s right to exist. But don’t count your chickens yet, because mandating the AOV will have disastrous consequences for all those zzp’ers who are struggling to find a place in the field for which they were trained and where their hearts lie. Starting up as a zzp’er will become much more complicated; recent graduates will wind up in an endless cycle of unpaid (or underpaid) internships to gain ‘experience’. In addition, the costs of a compulsory AOV will make the situation for many zzp’ers even more precarious, while insurance companies will only benefit financially. The question then is, is the government doing this for zzp’ers, for the insurance companies, for the Netherlands Limited, or for everyone? As Aukje van Roessel states, the government’s motive for compulsory AOV is to keep the social system affordable. I wonder whether there aren’t any better solutions that address the problem at the root and take into account the relations in our society.

The neoliberal market ideology does not work for sectors such as healthcare, education, and art and culture. Market thinking has a negative impact on the quality of these sectors, mutual solidarity, and the general welfare. Under Halbe Zijlstra the budgets for the arts and culture sector were irresponsibly axed. In addition, the labour market has become flexibilised and public housing has been slashed, causing gridlock in the housing market. Finding an affordable house? After 13 years, I have only a small chance of finding a house through social housing. Unfortunately, my situation is far from exceptional. The citizen, and in this case the zzp’er in the cultural sector, is being dealt blow after blow. Yet the government – in prosperous times for the Dutch economy – does not seem to choose in favour of its citizens, but in favour of the market. In this discussion, the bigger picture is important because in the end, it isn’t about having disability insurance or not, but about the generally precarious circumstances of zzp’ers (in the cultural sector). The irresponsible cutbacks in the cultural sector, the introduction of a neoliberal course, and focus on profits have all contributed to a precarious and unstable field, the erosion of the sector, and large numbers of overworked professionals. The mandatory disability insurance is therefore also the ‘bill’ for all the previous policy choices. The problem is that it isn’t the people who caused these problems who are on the hook for this bill, but rather the people who have already suffered due to precisely those choices and are already in a precarious position.

I think the discrepancy between policymakers’ words and deeds is what stops many workers in the cultural sector from taking out an AOV. The discrepancy consists of acknowledging the importance of art and culture, but not being willing to pay a fair price for it, sometimes for commercial reasons and sometimes due to a lack of money. I think that every zzp’er would love to have disability insurance, but this will only be possible if there is fair payment in the sector. More and more zzp’ers (in the cultural sector) are aware of the impact they can have and/or the role they could play by refusing to work for nothing or not enough. The sector itself is active and willing, but policy and resources don’t yet support this sufficiently. We are waiting for various governments – local, provincial, and national – to recognise that the value of art and culture is essential for society. But recognition is not enough. It is also important to draw up budgets that are in line with the idea of who we want to be as a society and what is of value: put your money where your mouth is. Once there is fair remuneration and responsibility is taken for the severe and ongoing consequences of the cutbacks and the way in which the ‘value’ of art and culture is measured, only then is it time to talk about compulsory AOV. Mandating AOV may not even be necessary then, because under better conditions people would choose independently to have insurance, and the number of people who are unfit to work would decrease due to a reduced workload. If there still aren’t any ideas about how to finance this, I think that multinationals like Shell and Philips should start paying income tax – then there would be enough money to make a good start.


Translated by: Felix van de Vorst & Hannah Vernier

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