Over the last few years, the P2P Foundation has been focusing on the design of the cooperation between commons and market entities as well as public-commons cooperation models. But what are the underlying conditions for such a shift? One is of course environmental, i.e the need to have an economy that functions within the limits of the planet; but the other is social, we urgently need to re-balance the power relationships between those that work, and those that extract and control the surplus of that work. With the salaried population dwindling, along with the power of the unions, a new force is needed, one that can organize today’s new precarious workers, especially those for whom autonomy is a choice. There is therefore a crucial role for labour mutuals, like SMart in Belgium, which is now organizing 220 thousand of such autonomous workers in nine European countries, and moving to a cooperativist and mutualist perspective. Here is a good introduction to their work by Shareable. The SMart model combines a mutual guarantee fund, which allows them to convert invoices into salaries with the full set of welfare provisions of European states, and payable within 7 days; extensive service and advice to their members, as unions used to do, with a further huge potential for developing new solidarities. I am very happy to work for them as a strategy consultant for the next three years.

Kevin Stark: SMart is a social enterprise founded in 1998 in Belgium. The project’s aim is to simplify the careers of freelancers in cities across Europe where SMart operates. These days, there are many freelancer services — cooperatives, coworking spaces, unions — but at the time of its inception, SMart officials were focused on one subsection of this workforce: artists. “That’s how we started,” says Lieza Dessein, a project and community manager for SMart. “What we realize is that a lot of artists have the same kind of issues when they are working. For example, a band would make up a contract. The band would actually pay the musicians with that single contract. And they had very irregular revenues.”

Dessein said the original idea was to take all the bookkeeping and other administrative tasks off of the artist. “The solution that they came up with was, OK we will just make up a company,” she said. “So instead of every artist needing to develop its own legal entity to be able to work, we will just share a company with the artists.”

Today, setting-up a coworking platform is not uncommon, but at the time it was a bold idea. Over the years, SMart expanded to provide services for many other types of freelancers, and changed with the evolving nature of work. Dessein spoke with us about the evolution of the project.

Kevin Stark, Shareable: I’m a freelancer in Chicago, and to my knowledge, we don’t have an organization that is as comprehensive as SMart. If I were moving to Brussels, how would you pitch me on the program? 

Lieza Dessein, SMart EU: We are a shared company. It’s quite important for us. We have over 90,000 members here in Belgium alone. And active members on a yearly basis, we are around 20,000. Active members are members who log in between one and three times a year. All of that together in 2016, they billed to our company in Belgium 136 million euros. We’re operating in nine European countries.

The development of the project in European countries is quite different from country to country. They’re not all that far developed as Belgium. Belgium is the mother house. For 20 years, we’ve had a full range of services. Our business model is a patient one. We grow steadily and smoothly and build up the community inside each country. We make sure that everything we are doing is under a legal frame that exists in that country, and we need also to adapt it to the culture in each country and in the communities. I would say, we haven’t changed all that much but we have shifted with the realization that the work environment has changed.

I love the lifestyle associated with freelancing and the freedom to work on a wide range of projects. The only rub for me is the stability and the lack of community. What’s different about SMart?  

We have a whole range of services, and the most important one is that people who work with us to guarantee that they will be paid in seven days after the end of a contract — even if the client hasn’t paid yet. We have a mutualized salary guarantee fund, and we take care of the debt collection for the freelancers as well. We share the company with our freelancers. We become the employer of all our freelancers and take on the responsibility linked to the employer status. The reason why we decided to become the employer of the freelancers is that for the moment it’s very difficult for freelancers to access social protection and the best social protection you can get is linked to the employment contract. And, if we manage to put everybody on the employment contract they have easier access to social protection as well.

How has the project evolved over time?

Smart means Societe Mutuelle pour ARTistes (mutualized company for artists). It was a company that aimed to take over the administrative burden linked to artistic entrepreneurship. Little by little we developed a tool that could cover a wider range of professions and we opened up to all freelancers. It’s an evolution that little by little you realize that you have a tool that can serve a whole new community that you weren’t planning to serve. There was this shift to make in the mind. We were saying, “Is it actually possible?” Because it’s a little bit frightening to say. I’m focused on musician, artist people in the theater. And it’s like you can have a grasp of that reality, and suddenly you get people working in the care service — everything that’s related to massage, yoga. We have I.T. consultants, and you get all those different professions. For the advisors, it could be overwhelming. We really rationalized: What are the needs of that community as a whole? What are the needs? They are the same as the freelancers. Along with shifting our mindset, we also strengthened our team with advisors coming from a wide range of different professions to make sure we have people who have a good grasp on particular professions.

What were some of those needs?

Our members have an irregular income, multiple clients, being an employee and then becoming an employer, develop different skills and jobs. We have a very fractured job environment where they will work a lot during the year and then not always in the summer. If you really take the whole community and say what are the needs? Instead of focusing on the differences — they need this, and they need that. At one point to say, where are the similarities? If you look at not from the perspective of differences but on a perspective of similarities. We needed to open up our services. Because freelancers — and artists — are evolving in complex legal issues, are confronted to a lot of administration and the risks involved in individual entrepreneurship are high.

SMart was evolving with the changing nature of work?

The workforce is more and more scattered and individualized. And you have all those individual entrepreneurs and the old school way of doing things is to say: I’m an individual entrepreneur,so I will set up my own legal entity. I will go for my own little office somewhere lost in city.

If you scale that model you can see that you are facing very isolated society where every individual is on their own and facing the same kind of difficulties. How do I set-up a company? How do I make myself known? How do I meet fellow people that are working in the same field? How do I find clients? Suddenly if we say, let us take over the administration, and then if you need training we have training sessions. And for the moment we are also investing in work spaces. We are really looking into different ways of bringing back [collectivism] among that scattered workforce. How do you reinvent solidarity amongst individual entrepreneurs? How do you make people create a community that eases their entrepreneurship? How do we reinvent the social protection for all workers?

Images: SMart’s website

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