What kind of organisation is behind the Smart Cooperative? It was created in 1998 and its vocation is clear, i.e. to support and secure the path of people wanting to develop a professional activity without becoming self-employed or having to create a company. It is a popular solution, as Smart is present in nine cities in Belgium in 2022. A look back at a success story with Carlo Vergnano, partnerships manager.
In brief, what does Smart do?
Carlo Vergnano: Smart is a workers' cooperative. It offers its members an original solution for creating their own salaried jobs as well as a range of shared services in many areas: legal, financial, administrative, training, economic support and shared workspaces.
In short, Smart allows you to develop your own business in a secure environment. By selecting the cooperative solution, you are choosing social protection for employees combined with a real entrepreneurial dynamic.
How does it work in practice?
Carlo Vergnano: When you work with Smart, you actually become an employee of the cooperative.
However, you remain in control of your business, as you negotiate with customers, provide quotes via Smart's online platform, send back the signed documents via email, etc. Once the quote has been signed and the mission completed, Smart, as the employer, sends the invoice to the client/customer and ensures the follow-up, deducts and sends the social and employer's contributions to the relevant institutions, provides you with the social documents and pays your salary within seven working days of your service, even if the client has not yet paid the invoice. Smart is therefore responsible for remuneration and all the social and tax declarations that result from it.
A WORD ABOUT YOUR 32,000 MEMBERS: WHO ARE THEY?
Carlo Vergnano: Smart is open to all project leaders, regardless of their status (job-seeker, employee, student, etc.) and whether or not it is their main activity. Whatever their profile or profession*, whether for a one-day service or to develop activities on a permanent basis, whether the person is considering major investments, hiring staff or simply wanting to invoice a service. Smart also allows you to work, under certain conditions, under a permanent contract, full-time or part-time.
The population of members is, therefore, fairly heterogeneous. Some are people wanting to develop an additional activity to their main occupation. For example, a teacher who has a passion for music, which they will seek to convert into a salary.
But there are also people who develop all their activities within Smart. Not only do these members earn enough income from their activities to live on, but they can also make investments, hire staff and grow their business. There is no need for these project leaders to create their own small limited liability company, as they become part of our shared enterprise.
Is a smart activity compatible with unemployment?
Yes, it is possible to work with Smart when you are unemployed. However, two conditions must be met:
- first, when you work on your business, you have to enter contracts that make you an employee. If you do not declare your work, the NEO could consider it as self-employed activity - so in principle incompatible with unemployment.
- second, the days of work declared in the contracts must be checked off (blackened) on the time card. You will not receive unemployment benefits for those days. You must meet these conditions to preserve your unemployment rights.
- There is no limit to what you can earn per work contract, but be careful if you are also paid for copyright or related rights, in which case the NEO sets an annual limit beyond which you will have to repay part of your allowances.
For people not entitled to unemployment, accumulating enough contracts (and therefore days of work) over a given period of time entitles them to unemployment.
What types of activities are prohibited*?
Carlo Vergnano: Some trades or practices are not - or not yet - allowed at Smart, for one of the following reasons:
- they are not in line with the values of the cooperative (this is the case for pyramid schemes);
- they require insurance coverage that the shared enterprise is not able to provide and that complementary insurance would not provide either (this is the case for certain construction trades);
- they obey regulatory constraints that the shared enterprise is not able to guarantee (such as professions subject to INAMI).
Please read the complete list on the website.
You talk about shared services. What are they?
Carlo Vergnano: In fact, as members pool resources, they collectively provide each other with a series of services that are necessary or useful in pursuing their activities:
- general services: invoicing of services and copyright and related rights, contract management, payroll management, cost management, VAT recovery, management of subsidies or important financing, etc.
- risk coverage: payment of the service on D+7, insurance coverage.
- shared tools: management platform, shared workspaces.
- individual and collective support, access to training, advice and legal expertise.
What types of contracts exist?
Carlo Vergnano: At Smart it is possible to use several types of contract: artistic, non-artistic, student, temporary... but they are always salaried employment contracts. You can even go through SMART just to invoice a single service, provided that it lasts at least 3 hours and is invoiced at a minimum of 70 euros excluding VAT.
In fact, you can invoice clients anywhere in the world. However, the work can never be carried out on Swiss soil. For countries at war or at risk, the agreement to go and work there will be given on a case-by-case basis, depending on different issues (list of countries at risk, insurance...).
We can create contracts for different activities. For example, giving yoga classes, selling products at markets and copywriting. We can work with single contracts (one contract = one customer) or manage a real small business within the shared company (activity-based management). In both cases, it is generally possible to deduct business expenses and recover VAT.
FINANCIAL RESOURCES ARE OBVIOUSLY REQUIRED TO OFFER ALL THESE SERVICES. WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?
Carlo Vergnano: Financial resources, yes, of course, since we only receive very marginal subsidies.
The shared tools and services are collectively financed in different ways; firstly a personal contribution from our members as members of the cooperative, and secondly a contribution based on the professional activity of the members. All this is set out on our website and explained during the information sessions.
Who should I contact if I have any questions?
Carlo Vergnano: Interested parties should make an appointment via the website to attend an information session in the language of their choice (FR, NL or EN). They can also attend the on-site office without an appointment; it is available every day to help members use the billing platform or to answer any other questions.
And obviously we have a website where they can also find the answers to a large number of questions!