Setting up a co-operative: how to share the burdens of self-employment


The image of the satisfied self-employed, able to set up his small business and to ensure in this way his financial security, is dramatically far from representing reality. As temporary and casual work, freelance work and various other atypical forms of work continue to increase in Europe, the drawbacks of self-employment, often definable as “precarious work”, begin to be of general concern.

The data are clear: as stated in the Labour market and Labour force survey (LFS) statistics, in 2014 self-employed persons accounted for 16.4 % of total EU employment, with proportions varying from more than 20% in Italy, Portugal and Greece to 10% or below in Denmark, Luxemburg and Estonia . A particular case is offered by the UK, where self employment appears to be growing at a higher rate than in other European countries, leading to the expectation that in 2018 more people will be in self employment than in public sector jobs.

But working outside the traditional employment structure means moving “in a grey zone, where freelancers work, perhaps more than full-time, but they do not qualify for workers’ protections” explains Joel Dullroy, author of “Independents Unite! Inside the Freelancers’ Rights” movement. As shown in the Not Alone Report, self employed workers do not enjoy the same degree of protection granted to other workers under European Regulations, with entitlements to sickness and holiday pay. Furthermore, they bear the extra costs of office space, equipments, insurance, pension saving and much more. To this we often have to add the psychological costs, as self-employed often experience loneliness when working alone for extended time.

The EU is aware of the need to work on the adaptation of the traditional social security systems to suit self-employed workers, as it appears from the report “On social protection for all, including the self-employed workers” of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, in which member states and the Commission are called to work towards the introduction of “adequate social protection framework provisions for the self-employed, based on reciprocity and the principle of non-discrimination”.

While at the European level a changement in the regulations begins to be envisaged, much has already been done at local level, as more and more freelances decide to join forces and build cooperatives, sharing costs and services and rediscovering solidarity.

A classical example, analyzed in the Not Alone Report (and brought to the public attention by a recent article published on The Guardian), is the Swindon Music Co-operative, which was born from the effort of 20 music teachers who chose to collectively market their services and share the burdens of administration, rather than continuing to struggle day by day to find new jobs on their own. From their successful example many others followed, and cooperatives of interpreters, musicians, graphic designers and any other profession began to develop, each one adapting to a specific context and developing the most suited features.

As the co-operative model becomes popular in the UK, it is worth giving a look to the numerous examples coming from different countries, where experimentation in this field has been going on for a longer time. In the USA the Freelancers Union has managed to attract over 280,000 members without giving up on its mutual nature, while in France a recent legislation recognizes the role of numerous cooperatives and allows their member to access benefits of conventional employees. The Self-employed Women Association was set up in India and acts as a cooperative, providing its 1.7 million members with micro-insurances while fighting for members rights in the mean time.

The co-operatives are not to be seen as a substitute to the traditional trade unions for the self employed, but instead can become a fundamental complement to the services already offered within the trade union framework, and contribute to the creation of a valid response to the transformational changes taking place in the workforce. Judging from the Report’s findings, a beneficial distribution of roles between the two would leave to the trade union the task of securing employment protection, decent labor standards and collective bargain rights, while it would count on mutual organizations for the provision of a complementary set of services, from workplace to forms of financial support.

A good starting point for the assessment of self-employed needs and rights could be the Charter of Freelance Rights, developed by the European Federation of Journalists, which could be extended to other categories of workers and could constitute the basis for the development of a self-employed workers’ charter.

Our analysis has shown that solidarity economy strategies are unequivocally on the rise but, as Pat Conaty (co-author of the Not Alone Report) rightly points out, they are still fragmented. Therefore trade union and co-operative movements need to unite their effort in the definition of a response to the workforce transformations and, by starting the process, they might trigger a snowball effect which will result in more solidarity solutions.


In Europa il lavoro autonomo, il lavoro temporaneo, il freelance e altre forme di lavoro atipico sono in continuo aumento, e preoccupano gli svantaggi che derivano da questa tipologia di impiego, spesso definita anche come “lavoro precario”. Come emerge dal report “Not Alone – Trade union and co-operative solutions for self-employed workers” i lavoratori autonomi si trovano in una zona grigia: non rientrando nelle categorie di lavoratori tradizionali essi non hanno accesso allo stesso livello di protezione garantito ai primi, e devono affrontare molti costi aggiuntivi.
Gli esempi di gruppi di lavoratori autonomi che costituiscono cooperative in modo da condividere spese e servizi diventano sempre più numerosi, e ci dimostrano come ancora una volta solidarietà e condivisione possano essere la risposta giusta.