Andrea Wilke Arbeitsrecht Kombination_LinkedIn_resized


Compensation for Seva services in a yoga ashram

In a decision dated April 25, 2023 (9 AZR 253/22) the Highest Labor Court in Germany ruled that a member of a yoga association living in their ashram is entitled to statutory minimum wages if Seva services have been contractually agreed between the parties and are classified as employment duties. In this aspect, the yoga ashram does not have the privileged status of a religious or spiritual community.

The case

The sued party, a yoga association, is a non-profit organization with the purpose "to educate the people through disseminating the knowledge, spreading the principles, practices, and techniques of yoga including related disciplines and the advancement of religion" according to their statutes. The association operates various facilities offering trainings, lectures, and other events on yoga or related subjects to pursue these purposes. Members of the association residing in the yoga ashram live within so-called ‘Sevaka’ (ashramite) communities. They perform duties according to instructions given by a supervisor, i.e. Seva services like domestic and garden work, advertising, bookkeeping and yoga classes. For a living the association provides free accommodation and food. ‘Sevaka’ members receive a monthly allowance and are covered by statutory health, unemployment and long-term care insurances, a statutory pension scheme plus an additional pension plan.

The claimant is a fully trained lawyer. She lived in the association’s ashram as a ‘Sevaka’ and rendered Seva services from March 1, 2012, until June 30, 2020. With her legal action she claims payment of statutory minimum wages based on a regular working time of 42 hours per week and her status as an employee.

The court’s reasoning

The claimant won the case at the Federal Labor Court. Her work for the yoga ashram is classified as an employment and, in consequence, she is entitled to statutory minimum wages acc. to Sec. 1 (1), Sec. 22 (1) German ‘Act Regulating a General Minimum Wage’ (MiLoG). The claiming member was contractually obliged to perform Seva tasks and thus to perform work in the service of another, such work being tied to instructions and determined by others in personal dependence within the meaning of Sec. 611a (1) German Civil Code (BGB). Her work as a member of a Hindu ashram community is not considered a charitable service outside of an employment relationship.

The yoga association cannot rely on the constitutionally guaranteed privileges of self-determination of a religious or spiritual community according to the German Constitution. They lack a sufficient degree of religious system building and world significance. The association's statutes stipulate a wide-ranging spectrum of religious and spiritual elements that does not indicate a sufficient orientation to the Yoga Vidya teaching.

‘Autonomy of Associations’, a constitutionally protected right acc. to Art. 9 (1) German Constitution only permits work determined by others in personal dependence and outside of an employment relationship, in case mandatory employee protection rights are met. This protection implies a commitment to pay at least a compensation according to statutory minimum wages, against which cost for food and housing is not to be offset.


Work duties without any compensation or below minimum wages is permissible only in exceptional cases. This is particularly true if a person dedicates all his or her working time to a spiritual community for many years. It requires good argumentation to avoid payment obligations relying on constitutionally guaranteed rights as of religious and spiritual freedom and autonomy of association. In this case, arguments have not been sufficient to convince the Federal Labor Court. 

However, voluntary services and charity work without pay remain possible not immediately establishing an employment relationship. Nevertheless, for religious or spiritual communities and other non-for-profit organizations, especially with social and cultural focus, it is recommended to review if work of their members is performed voluntarily.

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