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From the artist to the Uber driver, reinventing the support of self-employed people

Benjamin Huybrechts

Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Organization

EM Lyon

François Pichault* (photo)

Professor at HEC Liège

University of Liege

Virginie Xhauflair

Associate professor

University of Liège

*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute.


Article originally published on The Conversation France.

As the number of self-employed workers increases, new forms of support are being developed. Founded in the late 1990s in Belgium to assist self-employed artists, the social enterprise SMart has been so successful that it has gradually expanded its scope of action, spreading to several European countries. Let's decipher a success story.

Atypical workers

Emeric, 42 years old, is one of the so-called "project workers" or "autonomous workers". He is a carpenter and a member of a collective of visual artists. He creates custom furniture projects for a wealthy clientele. For several years, he earned a meager living as a freelancer. His occasional collaborations with the artists' collective do not fit easily into this status, which supposes a regular and recognized activity.

For a few months, he has been renting out a floor of his house on Airbnb. This additional income allows him to select the projects he wants to work on, to satisfy his passion for travel, and to devote time to creative activities, sometimes paid.

His activity does not fit into the established categories of the labor market, which classifies workers either as self-employed or as employees, with in both cases a regular and well-defined activity. In this context, which does not offer specific recognition for these atypical workers, for example in terms of access to social security, we are interested in supporting their professional trajectories.

Self-employed workers: a growing population

Throughout Europe, the number of these "project" or "autonomous" workers is growing - a recently concluded European project specifically addressed this issue. However, it is difficult to produce precise figures on this subject, as the available statistical data do not reflect the new realities of the labor market.

However, an exploratory study was carried out at the European level in 2012 by the economist Stéphane Rapelli on the professional self-employed or "Ipros". These are self-employed workers without employees, not engaged in agriculture, crafts or trade, and engaged in activities of an intellectual and/or service nature. From 2000 to 2011, the growth of these IPros was more than 80%, while the overall number of self-employed workers remained broadly stable. These workers accumulate one-time contracts for a given service.

Self-employed workers practice a variety of professions: musicians, actors, graphic designers, web developers, writers, freelance journalists, architects, teachers... But also, more and more, drivers or deliverymen within the framework of online platforms such as Uber, Deliveroo and other Foodora.

Many of them, like Emeric, hold several jobs, which is reflected in the growth of "pluriactive" workers in Europe. These workers are sometimes employees, sometimes self-employed, sometimes principals or even employers when they subcontract missions. In some cases, part of this work is not recognized upstream of the service that is the subject of a contract with the client. This is for example the case of rehearsals for a musician or an actor.

Because of their atypical situation, the recognition of their professional activity often requires complex administrative gymnastics. There are many grey areas, often preventing them from benefiting from proper social protection, whether it be unemployment benefits, sick leave or pension contributions.

In order to offer solutions to these atypical workers and to represent them to the established actors of the labor market (State, trade unions, employers' representatives), intermediary organizations have been created, some of them by the workers concerned themselves.

The SMart model, a mutual society for artists

SMart was created in 1998 in Belgium. At the time, the aim was to help artists secure their professional careers. To meet this need, SMart designed a set of tools, including an online platform to facilitate the administrative management of work.

A billing system and a virtual account allow the worker to be paid by SMart before the client makes the payment. This system also offers the possibility to benefit from an employment contract over a whole year, in order to smooth out the often very irregular income over time. The worker can even manage his own "virtual company" through a "budget account" that can be used to pay the remuneration of employees or other operating costs.

New services have rapidly emerged: equipment rental, legal services, networking, contribution to the creation of shared workspaces (Brussels Art Factory, La Grappe in Lille or the Spinoza space in Paris). In addition, workshops and training sessions are regularly offered to members.

Geographic and sectoral expansion

Although SMart was originally created by and for artists, the organization's success soon led it to offer its services to all self-employed workers or project workers, from the world of training to that of design, including communication and fashion. After Belgium, SMart moved to several European countries, including France, Spain and Sweden, working with local partners and adapting its model to local conditions each time.

SMart has thus grown from a few hundred members in the early 2000s to more than 100,000 members today. In 2016, the structure became a cooperative and is on its way to becoming the largest worker cooperative in Europe. It has also become a major interlocutor in terms of promoting and representing self-employed workers. SMart's recent role in representing and defending the couriers of Take Eat Easy, and later Deliveroo, is proof of this.

An innovative model in search of legitimacy

Yet, despite this success, SMart's development quickly drew hostility from many established players in the labor market: unions, temp agencies, online platforms and, to some extent, government authorities. In particular, some accused it of trivializing the precariousness of project work, in the form of what is now called "projectariat. SMart has also been criticized for marginalizing the unions, for acting as employers without assuming full responsibility and, more generally, for developing on the ground of the recognized actors of social dialogue.

In our study, we are interested in the factors that have allowed the cooperative to develop despite this hostility. Despite, also, a highly regulated labor market, especially in countries like Belgium and France, where innovation in this sector is very difficult to introduce and diffuse if it is not carried by the established actors.

The results show that SMart's success is based on its ability to transgress established labor market boundaries: the employer-employee distinction, the distinction between self-employed and salaried workers, the distinctions between occupations, the distinction between roles in the labor market, etc.

Pragmatism, reflexivity and questioning: the three pillars of SMart

The actions that have enabled SMart to gain legitimacy in the labor market can be classified into three categories that call for distinct qualities pragmatism: SMart's actions have always been focused on the needs of its members, seeking to meet them without waiting for government intervention or authorization. This approach has allowed SMart to develop numerous services and tools, to grow rapidly and to gain legitimacy among the many self-employed. Thus, when the actors of the labour market opposed the "SMart model", the organization already had a large number of workers who could hardly be left behind;

reflexivity: SMart has always positioned itself on a reflective and communicative approach, in order to justify the relevance of its actions. Whatever one thinks of these justifications, SMart has taken an important place in the public debate on self-employment. Despite the criticism that its "go-getter" attitude may have provoked, SMart has gained visibility by relying on its concrete achievements.

Questioning: With the SMart model having proven itself, critics no longer focus so much on the solutions offered by SMart, but on its legitimacy to develop its solutions as a private initiative, albeit a cooperative and not-for-profit one. In the face of calls for a "public SMart" identified in some of our interviews, SMart reaffirms its vocation to serve its members. Through the creation of the cooperative, the structure reinforces their participation in all decision-making. Already well recognized in social and solidarity economy networks, SMart thus claims an economic action at the service of workers and society, even if some would have preferred that this action be carried out by unions and public authorities.

At a time when discussions are taking place on working conditions and the protection of self-employed workers, particularly those on the Uber and Deliveroo platforms, SMart's experience, imperfect as it may be, constitutes an interesting contribution to the debate. Indeed, it constitutes an alternative to both the classic schemes of protection in the labor market and to the trends towards the "uberization" of the economy. Thus, it contributes to reinforcing the social protection of workers with atypical statuses, which are increasingly numerous.

Article translated from French with


To discover...

François Pichault's articles on The Conversation France.

François Pichault's articles & books via CAIRN.Info.


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