Pro Nobis, the Portuguese co-op offering artists better social security

Workers can keep working independently while the co-op deals with invoicing, paying taxes and social contributions

Uncertainty and lack of social protection are an everyday reality for those working in the arts sector – which, in Portugal, accounts for 4% of total employment (Eurostat) and 57.5% of self-employed persons.

Around a third of those active in the arts and culture sector in Portugal are self-employed (29%), compared to the 15% self-employment share of the total employment figure. As a 2022 report by Eurostat revealed, self-employment and freelancing can result in job insecurity and considerable variations in income over time. 

To address some of these issues, in 2014, a group of friends made a new year’s resolution to set up Pro Nobis, a workers’ co-op for freelancers in the art sector. 

“People who worked in the cultural sector in Portugal did not have a very good social solution and we were very tired of it so we decided that that would be the year for change,” recalls chief executive Michelle Chan, who, at the time, was an independent film technician.

“We knew nothing about co-operatives, we just knew that we had to find a legal solution. We started studying all the all the options and when we got to the co-operative legislation, we realised article by article that maybe that was the way. We didn’t know anything about co-operatives. We didn’t know that co-operatives were a solution for a lot of things in the world.”

Despite never having been involved in co-ops, the founding members were able to set up Pro Nobis in just four months. It was only later that they learnt about other co-ops providing similar services to freelancers in the arts sector such as Smart in Belgium.

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The lack of awareness of the model among some public institutions and politicians was a big challenge when setting up, and the co-op is still trying to address it.

“Even now after 10 years of existence, we are still still trying to break that barrier,” says Chan.

Camila Beirao, who works on artist management and music events production, illustrations and graphic design, joined the co-op in 2015. “It really opened my mind,” she says, “because I was trying to find a solution for myself, and I had always always had this instinct that there should be a way to have social security and a more stable existence.

“When I came to Pro Nobis I fell in love immediately with all the concepts and all the processes and started to work as a team member.”

The co-op model allows members to continue to work independently while the co-op deals with invoicing, collecting payments, providing unemployment allowance and sick leave, deducting professional expenses, paying taxes and social contributions, and paying their salaries. 

And Portugal’s legislation for co-operatives allows the members to declare their income as employees, building up their social security contributions.

Other member benefits include voucher meals, kindergarten vouchers, work accident insurance and agency services such as suggesting artists or technicians for events. The co-op has 300 members, including musicians, technicians, actors, DJs, journalists, photographers, TV presenters and YouTubers.  

The pandemic brought even more challenges for workers in the arts sector but Pro Nobis managed to stay afloat. While some of its members were able keep working, especially those working in television, design or film, others had to access unemployment benefits. 

But, like other co-ops, Pro Nobis says there is a challenge of members who do not often engage with the co-op. “We would like our members to participate more,” says Beirao. 

Chan thinks that the lack of participation is because members can have a say in how the organisation is run and do not need to attend its dual general assemblies to do so. Members can bring their suggestions to the board all year round.

The co-op runs informative sessions a year for any artists wishing to learn more about its model. In recent years, it has also become active in Confecoop, the Portugues National Federation of Cooperatives and Forum Cooperativas, an informal network of young co-operatives.