Business and Employment Cooperatives

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= legal form (in Belgium, France ?) that allows self-employed to be salaried by their own joint cooperative, thereby obtaining the social protections of the salaried workers


Pat Conaty:

"Developing mutual aid far wider, co-operative innovators in France and Belgium have developed integrated services for self-employed workers. They have invented multi-stakeholder Business and Employment Co-operatives (BECs). Leading pioneers include the CAE network in France and Smart in Belgium.

The CAE is a co-operative to help the newly self-employed secure solidarity support. As CAE members avoid going it alone by becoming co-op employees and thus access worker status and rights. Co-op services provided to CAE members include: affordable managed workspace, back office services, debt collection, help with marketing, low-cost insurance and a collective system for securing sickness and benefit payments from government. Because of the start up nature of CAE enterprises, some subsidy is provided by the state and EU funding. The support is for the first two years of trading. But it is possible for members to remain with the CAE as an associate after the startup period.

In 2016 a specific law for BECs was passed that recognises CAE members as employees and entrepreneurs united through CAE in a multi-stakeholder social co-operative. The CAE network has now expanded to become a national network of 72 local co-operatives in France. Some of the local CAEs specialise in specific trade sectors including home care, the arts and regional culture. SMart in Belgium took inspiration from the French CAE and also operates as a social co-operative for the common good. It specialises in providing workspace and back office services for the self- employed in creative industries. With 12 offices in Belgium and 75,000 members, it operates as a co-operative guild for the self-employed. Support and training are provided by a specialist advice and legal team. Smart members pay 25 euros a year plus 6.5% for each invoice processed. The co-operative additionally provides access to finance, equipment and vehicles.

In the US there are two current drivers for innovation in relation to the precariat. One is the widespread lack of healthcare insurance and the other is that America is home to the largest digital corporations. So to fight back, re-imagining the democratic use of platforms has been growing.

Using a platform to recruit and service, the Freelancers Union in the USA has developed as a mutual and provides a range of insurance services, local networking events plus other legal and advocacy support for its 280,000 members. Elsewhere, innovation in the USA is working to integrate trade union and co-operative provision more closely.

The new Union Co-ops emerging are especially interesting and the experiments are hopeful. They have been co-developed in recent years through a joint agreement forged by the US Steelworkers, the largest union in the USA, and the successful Mondragon Co-operatives from Spain. Today Union Co-ops are being set up in a range of industries and cities from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, there have been seven Union Co-ops established including a food hub, a railway manufacturer, a ‘green laundry’ and a jewellery manufacturer.

In the growing battle against digital capitalism, other American unions are adapting this thinking through organising efforts and class action lawsuits to secure employment rights. In New York City the International Association of Machinists is organising Uber drivers. The Green Taxis co-op in Denver is expanding its membership and with the backing of the Communication Workers of America has developed their own app. This collaborative strategy is seeking to establish worker- owned co-operative platforms that can be replicated in other cities." (source: STIR magazine)


Barbara Garbarczyk, Saw-B :

"The difficulties and risks in transferring to a self-employed status are not new and the solutions developed by the social economy are business cooperatives. Emerging in France and imported to Belgium in 1999 (with the establishment of the first company of this type: Azimut14) business cooperatives want to accompany currently unemployed persons in establishing their own business in a secure setting (testing the business activity within the cooperative, retaining unemployment benefits during a transition period).

What is a business cooperative?

«The business cooperative has the goal to enable persons having a certain know-how and feeling like creating their own employment or their own economic structure to do so in a secure setting while facilitating their start and enabling them to familiarize themselves with the operation and the management of a company. These "candidate entrepreneurs" - in principle, they are hard-to-place unemployed individuals and other vulnerable groups - conclude an agreement with the business cooperative (for an overall period of no more than 18 months) defining the accompanying activities, the framework and the coaching associated with their business activity; they are then given an opportunity to test in a reallife situation the viability of the business project they intend to launch as self-employed individuals while retaining their social rights (unemployment benefits, insertion income or welfare payments) during the term of the agreement.

The business cooperative is based on a collective momentum, is supported by monthly reunions of the entrepreneurs, individual coaching and accompanying on-site support by professionals. It makes its legal structure and its business registration number available to the candidate entrepreneur; to a certain extent it therefore turns into its billing centre. The principle of the absence of debts, which is fundamental for business cooperatives, effectively limits the range of possible activities: service activities or handicrafts - all sorts of business requiring little investment, demanding a low inventory. The cooperative cannot provide a framework for businesses requiring a lot of financial investment such as industry or trade or businesses requiring guarantees or long-term insurance like the building sector, for example. »

As often, the terminologies used in the French-speaking world lends themselves to confusion. Certain precisions are therefore called for.

In Belgium, business cooperatives are companies with a social purpose recognised in the decree called SAACE of 18 July 2008 (Structures d’Accompagnement à l’Auto-Création d’Emploi [Accompanying Structures for the Self-Creation of Employment]). Under this heading, they benefit from public financial support.

Employment cooperatives (also called DiES, see below) have neither a special legal structure nor a licence or label.

In France, one talks about CAE (business and employment cooperative) for all these structures.

This «first-generation» of business cooperatives intends to pursue a softer and smoother transition between the status of jobseeker and the self-employed status by reducing the initial risk and breaking the isolation of the project initiator. In Belgium, they are united in the Coopac Federation.

This experience resulted in the following reflections: why should one ultimately leave the business cooperative after the test? Why should one not continue to benefit from the advantages of certain shared elements (buying material, mutual financial management support, etc.) together with other entrepreneurs in a single company while pursuing one’s own business activities in full independence? This is the principle of the employment cooperative or the « shared enterprise». Ultimately, «we definitely share our apartments or vehicles, don’t we?», wonders Sandrino Graceffa. This is no longer a test for becoming selfemployed but a way of developing one’s business activities in a company, in which an individual is employed and a long-term partner at the same time. This is the option chosen by DiES, an employment cooperative in Belgium. It currently unites approximately 60 active salaried entrepreneurs in a wide range of fields: ONG, training, design, translation, business services, photography, etc. There are three conditions for joining this cooperative: «Having a specific know-how / an occupation, showing the strategic and financial viability of a professional project (an average gross margin of no less than € 2.000 per month), complying with the internal regulations». At the end of six months, there is an invitation to become a partner and to participate in the decision-making bodies according to the principle of « one person – one vote». It should also be noted that Azimut has recently launched « Join up », the employment cooperative project for individuals, who want to remain in the cooperative after the test period and who generate sufficient turnover.

«Business and employment cooperatives are a solution, they are not a model» clarifies Sandrino Graceffa. But these cooperatives are perhaps the place where the work of tomorrow is invented and conceived. « The company will become more and more functional in future: people will use it, because they need it to do what they want» he continues. One therefore passes from the shared enterprise to the «work mutual». What will this mutual resemble? It is difficult to say precisely, as the project is still in the conceptual stage. Nonetheless it represents an evolution of the model of business and employment cooperatives: the partners work in independently while providing security for each other. In contrast to the culture of entrepreneurial risk, the response given is a collective risk20 (which is lower and can therefore be more audacious). Furthermore, inside the mutual, it is possible to see the soft and opportunistic establishment of small businesses or circumstantial collectives which might work together on a particular occasion or over a longer period of time. The fact that it is not necessary to create a fully developed structure and its flexibility and ease may also enable individuals to avoid facing dilemmas: whether the project works or not or whether it becomes unsuitable over time, it is possible to «close shop» with less damage and more perspectives for redeployment than today (given the fact that everybody nonetheless stays in the same mutual). This more flexible way of creating and working may favour challenging the rationales and ways in which these groups will actually function to a greater extent. Today, the blackmail in favour of employment is still immense: even if one knows that certain business activities are disasters for the environment, for example, it is often very difficult to envisage closing them because of the loss of employment such an action will provoke.

In this mutual, «one does not join with an entrepreneurial project but with know-how (a «profession») intended as a means to make an independent living». This is really an upscale shift which will transform the theoretical experiment. As Sandrino Graceffa put it, «it is by the force of numbers that we can create a right».

Let us briefly recapitulate the history of business (and employment) cooperatives. At the start, they wanted to accompany jobseekers (and some still do) in creating their own business activity by enabling them to enjoy benefits (continuing allowances, opportunities for testing, advice …) and security in a transition phase. Then, certain structures wanted to « continue indefinitely» this transition phase through salaries for the entrepreneurs who then benefited from the advantages of being employed - especially with respect to social security - and the freedom of self-employment. Today, certain structures already conceive and test a model, which goes further and which might become a mass phenomenon and develop into a place, in which individuals coexist and work occasionally or as more permanent groups and collectives. This is the idea of the « work mutual» (a cooperative of professions, one might say).

It is interesting to underline that the model developed as assistance (the business cooperative) may give birth to a solution (the employment cooperative) which then inspires the development of a model (the work mutual)." (


Two examples: Coopaname in France and SMart, Belgium, now a European cooperative active in 9 countries (2017)

Meta-coop alliance: Bigre


Barbara Garbarczyk, Saw-B :

« Coopaname is a worker cooperative, which emerged from the movement of business and employment cooperatives. Coopaname features a range of activities and an open structure and proposes to any worker, male or female, graphic artist or repairer of chair seats, consultant or e-businessman/businesswoman, IT developer or magician to freely join the cooperative, to contribute his/her know-how and to independently develop a business activity, which enables him/her to gain a salary and to benefit from social protection. In other words: a collective framework to jointly look for the means to live decently of the activity a person likes and knows how to do in the rhythm of his/her own liking.»

Coopaname is a French structure from the Île-de-France and the Sarthe regions. Today it counts more than 750 persons. For joining Coopaname it is not necessary to justify a minimum turnover: « From your first billings, you sign a CDI (permanent contract of employment) with Coopaname – and you then benefit from the social protection and the same rights as any employed individual – and start paying your own salary from your own turnover. The salary you transfer to yourself varies over time and is reviewed during the further evolution of your activity. » (


Barbara Garbarczyk, Saw-B :

SMart was founded in 1998 in Belgium. It is currently represented in eight European countries and has more than 60,000 members. «Our organisation provides concrete answers, proposes advice, training and administrative, legal, fiscal and financial tools to simplify and legalise the professional activity in the creative sector». Apart from contributing solutions for a large number of workers in the creative sector, Smart has made a major contribution to numerous struggles for the recognition and appreciation of these «atypical» workers. SMart Belgique has recently launched «SMart in Progress», a participatory workshop of several months where all members are invited to participate. The objective? Transforming the association to a cooperative to better respond in full independence to the needs and the challenges of tomorrow." (

For more, including interview: How the European Social Enterprise SMart is Creating a Safety Net for Freelancers


Barbara Garbarczyk, Saw-B :

"« Bigre ! was formed as a result of a meeting between Coopaname, Oxalis, Grands Ensemble and Vecteur Activités, which have emerged from the business and employment cooperation movements, and SMartFr, the French representative of the SMart group of mutuals, which originated in Belgium and counts 35,000 professionals from the creative sector everywhere in Europe.

It is an open and welcoming cooperative, in which the following support functions are mutualised: management, research, social protection, legal assistance, etc. Together, Oxalis, Vecteur Activités, SMartFr, Coopaname and Grands Ensemble as well as all cooperative, associative or mutualist organisations joining them want their cooperation to overcome the traditional alternative between subordinated salaried employment and precarious self-employed work. Their group - which is essentially mutualist - comes with a strong demand for invention while refusing the commercialisation of social issues and without waiting for public powers, the necessary practices to arrive at a resocialisation of the economy.

Bigre has a novel form for an economic and social organisation: a work mutual in partnership. In a single and identical community, it regroups several thousand members working on the same footing and mutually offering guarantees based on their economic and social capacity to perform their professions well and make a living from them. In concrete terms, Bigre pursues a mission of integrating in its societal structure craftspeople as well as intermittent performers, freelancers, authors and e-businesspeople, journalists or service providers. Thanks to its common structure called «la Manufacture coopérative» and accompanying the cooperative, Bigre ! is also open to all new cooperative, mutualist or associative enterprises wishing to develop emancipated forms of work relationships in thei midst.

Bigre will be a novel form of economic and social organisation: a work mutual in partnership. » (