Is SMart living up to its ambition of creating a space of security and autonomy for workers? - J. Charles, S. Desguin, I. Ferreras


In this paper, we intend to investigate whether the largest worker cooperative in the Region of Brussels Capital (RBC), SMart, is living up to its ambition of creating a space of security and autonomy for workers to fill the void left by the disintegration of the Fordist regime.

During the last decades, as the Fordist regime collapsed, compagnies’ need for flexibility rose, workers’ inspiration for autonomy grew, leading to the expansion of a class of autonomous workers (Charles et al., 2018; Bureau and Dieuaide, 2018), more vulnerable to precariousness (Koukiadaki & Katasroumpas, 2017). This participated to the growth of structures such as SMart, which help freelance workers combine independent work with social security benefits by using regular employment contracts. Today, SMart serves close to 30.000 member-workers from various sectors in 44 cities across Europe. This paper will focus on RBC, where SMart has always been best established.

From its creation, and even more since it became a cooperative in 2016, SMart’s promise was to provide autonomous workers with quality, sustainable jobs in an autonomous setting (SMart, 2018), all the while including workers in the structure’s governance, trusting them with the autonomy befitting emancipated citizens, capable of governing their life at work and beyond (Charles, Ferreras, Lamine 2017).

With its unique model, SMart is attempting an experiment that should be evaluated, critiqued, and improved. Yet, as of today, no measure of impact has been conducted to determine whether SMart’s promises have been fulfilled. Preliminary qualitative research, however, has uncovered “misuses” of SMart that could lead to worse work overall, which should be investigated further. This original paper intends to fill that gap and will involve for the first time researchers from various fields at UCLouvain and USaintlouis.

To conduct this research, we have been given access by SMart to 20 years of quantitative data that have never been analyzed by researchers before. We intend to cross-analyze it with qualitative data that has been collected since 2017 by Charles & Ferreras as part of a research agreement between UCLouvain and SMart. We will provide a representation of the impact of SMart on its environment in the RBC in the last two decades, from the point of view of both workers and clients, allowing us to formulate suggestions on how it could better fulfill its promises in the future.