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= SMart (.be, .eu, etc ..) is a new type of labor mutual for freelance workers, based on a mutualization and pooling of resources, which started in Belgium and is expanding to other European countries [1]

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"SMart was set up as a non-profit organisation in 1998 in Belgium (BUT IS NOW A COOPERATIVE). Its founders were convinced that solutions could be designed that would allow creative professionals to work on their projects without being overwhelmed by administrative burdens and the worry of unpredictable cash-flow. Social innovation, to support and change the creative sector, is at the heart of this initiative and its three cornerstone values.

  • Non-profit: Advocating social economy: Our model is based on solidarity and pooling of means.
  • Need-based: Providing solutions that fit needs expressed: We offer services based on need and stay affordable.
  • Democracy: Encouraging solidarity, mobility and involvement: Our users are our stakeholders and governors."

2. 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." (

3. Michel Bauwens

SMart belongs to the legal category of Business and Employment Cooperatives, also called "labour mutuals". Freelancers pay a percentage of their income (2%) into a mutual guarantee fund, that allows the mutual to pay invoices within a week, after which it then carries out the payment procedures with the clients for a standard 'factoring' fee. This more regular income then allows freelancers to pay themselves their own salary, and after reaching tresholds, to become a official employee of the organization, while retaining their full autonomy. This allows a non-subordinate form of labor, but also allows freelancers to get the benefits that go with the status of being employed. SMart's leadership also promotes a cooperative and mutualist values agenda. In 2016, they moved to the legal status of a European Cooperative, which started operating in ten EU countries, and they were likely to reach 100,000 members by the end of 2016.

At the P2P Foundation we consider labour mutuals of the type of SMart to be a crucial bridge between the precarious statutes of independent workers and the protections of the social state available for the 'salariat', i.e the waged workers."

4. Pat Conaty et al.:

"The Belgian SMart (Société Mutuelle d’Artistes) has produced a system that is essentially the same as the CAEs, with the individual being an “employee” of SMart, but without any guaranteed wage. By doing so they pay the Belgian equivalent of PAYE and NI, thus allowing their members to obtain the benefits usually reserved for employees (such as for example access to unemployment benefit) and as in the CAEs, SMart handles the invoicing, salary deductions and tax payments for them. Since 2001, SMart has guaranteed payment for all work invoiced through the system, underwritten by mutual funds built up within the organisation. Members are paid within seven days, and don’t have to worry about defaulters.                                                             

SMart also provides members with professional liability, accident at work, and mobility insurances, which comes as part of the package. One contract through the system per year is enough to ensure coverage by SMart’s insurance all year. SMart is not subsidised in any way, and so charges a levy of 6.5 per cent of the invoiced fee to cover the cost of all its services including the insurance and payment guarantee. This, plus workspace rental, is the organisation’s only income, and is sufficient to break even and also put some funds into reserves and future growth." (

5. Working Together report:

"According to Working Together, the report, commissioned by Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative College, and supported by the Network for Social Change, Wales Co-operative Centre and the Institute for Solidarity Economics, identifies ‘co-operative solutions’ as well as partnerships with trade unions as a way of ensuring a fair deal for workers in an expanding gig economy.

It calls for the UK to replicate the ‘umbrella co-operative model’ for supporting freelancers and other precarious workers and points to Belgium-based SMart. The non-profit organisation enables precarious workers operating in the freelance sector to obtain a range of welfare benefits – including unemployment benefit.

SMart also provides its 70,000 plus members with tax support and advice. Sarah de Heusch Ribassin, Project Officer for the Development Strategy Unit at Smart, said: “Many of those who were self-employed found the legislation around taxes to be so complex and were afraid to do things wrong. “SMart offered an alternative that meant they no longer had to worry about making errors that would affect their income.” (


Sergio Giorgi:

"Formally speaking entities in Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria are all cooperatives registered under the national cooperative Law. The youngest one is SMart … in Belgium! SMartBe is legally a cooperative since 2016: it was originally established as a not-for profit organization in 1998.

In Hungary, Sweden, and The Netherlands SMart partners have all endorsed core values and principles of social economy (no profit, no distribution of dividends, participative governance avoiding absolute majority by any a single stakeholder) and formally registered under different legal forms (limited company, not-for-profit, foundation respectively in the aforementioned countries).

We really expect all successful SMart entities to converge towards the adoption of a cooperative status, and users to become members and take a stake in strategic decisions; we believe that the cooperative is the status that matches our governance and social enterprise model at best." (email, August 2017)



Kevin Stark interviews Lieza Dessein:

"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?"