What made you look into this in the first place?
B: In most of Western Europe labour markets are highly institutionalised and have an extensive regulatory framework that defines legitimate actors – such as trade unions – and their roles in the management and representation of workers.
In the UK, Germany and the Netherlands different regulatory initiatives have been taken to look after the interests of workers who ‘fall between the cracks’ – those who are project-based workers, freelancers, artists or creatives and those who only work sporadically.
In an age where more and more of us are employed in these types of roles, the question of how new players seeking to serve the non-standard worker can establish themselves into labour markets is more pertinent than ever. As recent controversies about online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo have shown, without some type of innovation, the risk is that growing numbers of workers end up without any social security rights, any support during illness or pregnancy, etc…
So, how did you go about exploring this issue?
B: Well, we looked into an initiative in Belgium. In most European markets, the influence of traditional unions is shrinking, but in Belgium it’s actually on the rise – over 55% of the active workforce are members of an organised trade body. However, they only really serve the purposes of clearly defined employees and those that are classified as self-employed – so there was a clear need for a new type of labour market intermediary (LMI). Until relatively recently there was nobody that specifically looked after the interests and rights of autonomous workers.
There had previously been some attempts to address the issue, but it wasn’t until an initiative called SMart emerged that the idea gained much traction. SMart is a community-based LMI offering innovative solutions to better represent the interests of artists, and other project-based workers to secure their discontinuous careers. It seemed as though this would serve as an interesting case study given the rise in this type of workers and the puzzle that they represent for very regulated labour markets such as France and Belgium.
We studied SMart using a qualitative study with data collected between 2012 and 2016 including interviews with key internal and external informants and with those that ran SMart itself. We also looked at documents published by SMart during this period and also looked at major newspapers for a perspective from the press in France and Belgium.
How did Smart become established? Is it successful?
B: It’s very successful – it was launched in the early 2000’s with a few hundred members initially, but has now grown to over 80,000 members, invoicing 200 million Euros. Smart also now operates in Italy, Spain, Sweden and France, as well as Belgium.and has become one of the largest actor providing this kind of service in Europe.
And how do they actually support their members?
B: Well, they effectively become their employer – but without any hierarchical control. They take a fee in return for their services of 6.5% of earnings and from that they can offer support for career breaks, illness, pregnancy or any other reason the worker might have income inconsistency. SMart have, in a short time frame, actually created a way of crossing the extant boundaries in labour relations and supporting a group of workers who were previously dissatisfied with the solutions offered to them by established labour market actors such as temporary work agencies.
So how did SMart achieve this? Were there any problems?
B: They basically took the initiative to address a broad array of workers and assumed the responsibilities that would traditionally either be of the employer or the worker unions. But while this approach was well received by the workers themselves, existing regulators and institutions were less receptive to the idea. The existing trade-unions were quick to criticise, saying that SMart was just acting as a third-party payer and did not fully assume the legal responsibility of the employer. Politicians, however, were more positive and allowed SMart to strengthen relationships with public authorities and even shaped some legislation to fit its practices.
If you look at the development trajectory of SMart as an organisation, you’ll see that it has been very opportunistic and creative in reacting to seize the opportunities that presented themselves in the market as a result of ‘institutional voids’. They acted quite entrepreneurially and this has been key in their success. Our study showed that boundary-crossing is inevitable for any new player looking to enter a highly institutionalised labour market – but that it could be a successful exercise if the new body addressed and solved problems relating to an unmet need. The paper shows the capacity of an initially marginal and contested actor to gradually appear as “the right organization for the job” in a very regulated institutional setting.