In recent years platform co-operatives have emerged as a viable alternative for gig economy workers, including artists and employees in showbiz. The model has been particularly popular in Europe, with co-ops such as Smart, Coop Cycle, Mensakas, and Doc Servizi enabling workers to come together to sell goods and services via a jointly owned platform.
But taking on the big tech giants is not without challenges even for well-established co-ops such as Smart, a worker co-operative with over 35,000 members, operating in nine European countries, including France.
Pôle Emploi Services, a French governmental employment agency that helps unemployed people find jobs and access benefits, has recently removed the employer license of Smart, along with that of one of its subsidiaries, La Nouvelle Aventure, which runs theatrical shows. The agency argues that the employees of Smart and La Nouvelle Aventure are not subordinated to them. It sees Smart as an umbrella agency that hires contractors rather than as an employer directly employing staff.
Smart says the agency does not understand how they work and called its decision “an unprecedented attack”.
By joining Smart or La Nouvelle Aventure, workers are able to gain access to social benefits and co-working spaces. The freelancers become employees of Smart and share resources like accountants and lawyers, but continue to work independently as artists, writers, and digital creatives.
Stephane Veyer, strategic adviser at Smart France says it is difficult to understand what pointed the agency to take such a measure.
“Officially, it was considered that Smart did not really play the role of producer of shows as defined by law, and that it should therefore no longer have the capacity to pay its members via the social system for artists and show technicians. In reality, no doubt what was wanted was to get rid of an organisation that, thanks to co-operation and the pooling of risks and resources, allows many artists in precarious work to access this social security system,” he said.
Another barrier is a general lack of awareness about the co-operative enterprise model. “During this crisis, we also realised the ignorance of some institutions regarding co-operatives: we had to do a lot of explaining around how our project is legitimate and legal,” he added.
Other co-ops, trade unions and professional organisations have expressed support for Smart. National apexes Coop Fr and Confédération Générale des SCOP as well as the Social Economy Employers’ Union were amongst those pledging their support. Mr Veyer thinks the co-operative movement can play a role in helping to put pressure authorities to recognise the specificity of the co-operative model.
“For the international co-op movement, it is really important to understand what is at stake in a business like ours. Faced with the immense democratic, environmental and social issues that are before us, many would like to continue business as usual, making it simply a little more philanthropic, a little more responsible, a little more open.
“For all of these people a ‘co-operative’ is nice, as long as it’s small and it’s about solidarity. But when a co-op declares it is pursuing a real political project and bringing forward strong ideas for social transformation, things get complicated for it,” he argued.
“For the co-operative movement, the best way to support us is to realise the power of its political project and not to be afraid to grow and assert its strength.”
Smart says its role is becoming increasingly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Through Smart, those working in the arts and showbiz sector can gain access to unemployment and social benefits they would struggle to access by working as freelancers.
“The Covid crisis was an opportunity for all shared co-op enterprises to demonstrate the validity of their project and their mode of operation. They functioned as spaces of solidarity, which acted as a buffer against the effects of the crisis for their members. We have been able to allow our members to access unemployment benefits that they could not have had without the co-operative, and we have succeeded in implementing important solidarity mechanisms,” added Mr Veyer.
The culture and arts sector in France was severely impacted by the pandemic. The Ministry of Culture’s study and statistics department, which investigated the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the culture sector, found that the pandemic led to a revenue decline of 73% on the live performing arts sector.
Smart worries that the decision to prevent it from providing much needed support to its employee owners could put the sector at further risk.
“The attack on Smart, in the midst of the crisis, deprived 4,000 artists and technicians of the tools of their shared work: isn’t this a way of pushing them to change their profession?” said Mr Veyer.
A number of co-operative and social economy practitioners, politicians, academics and economists have signed an open letter to Pôle Emploi in which they ask that the decision be revoked.
“We ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to reconsider an unfortunate decision, to reassure the thousands of people affected, and to carry out, with Smart and all the actors of the co-operative world, the essential work needed to ensure that these models are better known, protected, and encouraged,” they wrote.
Former social and solidarity economy minister Benoît Hamon is among the signatories.