fbpx Skip to content

What counts as self employed?

So we’ve had various members asking about this recently… and yup, HMRC takes a very dim view of what they called “hidden employment” – in other words, freelancers or contractors who really should be on payroll.

Just having a contract, or working off site, or only working part-time does not make you self-employed. HMRC looks at a combination of things:

– do you work at your own premises? 

– do you have the right to substitute someone else to do your work?

– do you use your own equipment? Use your own email? Work under your own insurance cover? 

– do you have more than one/two clients? 

– does the workload vary? 

– is it clear you are a VA and not an employee to other people? (I.e. you don’t hold a titled role at the company)

They take all these into consideration before deciding whether you are an employee or a subcontractor. If in doubt, use HMRC’s CEST tool:


What counts as self employed? - Society Of Virtual Assistants

Why does HMRC care about virtual assistants working continuously for clients? 

Because as an employee the client would be paying a lot more tax and national insurance contributions for you! As a freelancer, you roughly pay 30% tax (20% income tax and 10% NI Class 2 & 4). As an employee, you’d pay 20% income tax + employers contributions of 15% plus paying into your pension (so the govt would have less liability for you in your old age). Plus employee wages are taxed and paid monthly, freelancers account a d pay their tax on Jan 31 following the end of the tax year (currently – this will change with Making Tax Digital!). So freelancers pay less frequently too – which gives more opportunity for you to spend what you should have paid in tax! 

See also  Working from home: five tips for mental wellbeing

So if you are doing the same things week after week for your clients, charging a fixed amount retainer, there’s not a lot of difference between you and an employee – except that HMRC aren’t getting paid! Hence why they have an interest in these kinds of contracts. 

But retainers are good, right? 

Predictable cash flow is good – but if you are doing a great job, the client will want to work with you anyway. You don’t want them to feel they are paying you for nothing, and you want them to enjoy the flexibility of using a VA. You also have to decide what to do with unused hours and whether they can roll over into the next month…but what happens if they run up 20-40 hours work and then want to use them all in one week? So you need to figure out a way of managing the retainer service delivery as well as making sure it doesn’t fall foul of the CEST rules. 

Okay, but what are HMRC really going to do? 

Well all sorts of things can trigger a tax investigation – including o and looking more closely at the whole industry, because there appears to be a tax loophole which would pay HMRC to investigate it. VAs insisting on rolling retainers is one of those reasons to investigate… 

See also  The Longest Ever VA Business Set-Up?

If you are a sole trader, and are deemed to be an employee, the client will have to pay the extra employer’s contributions. But as a limited company providing services, you would need to pay the extra fees (and the fine!). This is why some clients have been insisting on you being limited in order to work with you. 


  1. Nicky on 19 November, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    Very useful and interesting thanks! So at what point is it good to look into becoming a limited company? I was basing mine basically on the point at which I am earning more and may want to expand or take on staff and then eventually sell the business (which is still looking far in the future!)

  2. HEATHER Butcher on 13 April, 2023 at 6:15 pm

    For me being self-employed is working on something I love to do, and being paid for it not necessarily in monetary terms however the fulfillment of making others happy or providing something is also a good way of being paid. I would love to be a Virtual Assistant working from home answering phone calls if need be.

    I have recently become a published writer during the pandemic restrictions which have successfully been published. The publisher has helped market my book – feeling chuffed to bits. New Generations Publishing now working on my third book.

    While being at home also with Open University studying, – still managing part-time employment on the road as a school passenger assistant, my time has been accounted for.

    Due to a recent injury on my toe, I am now out of the workplace and focusing on my recovery. However, love being at home, I am happy to work from home, self-employed or otherwise. VBH Financial Services is also my husband’s accountancy business he has recently set up also during the restrictions. Great so far. Heather Butcher and Vernon Butcher

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.