Sandrino Graceffa
Ashoka Fellow since 2018   |   Belgium

Sandrino Graceffa

Sandrino Graceffa has created a European movement to “Reinvent the World of Work” by building a new form of organization to ensure that all autonomous workers have the necessary infrastructure to be…
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This description of Sandrino Graceffa's work was prepared when Sandrino Graceffa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018.


Sandrino Graceffa has created a European movement to “Reinvent the World of Work” by building a new form of organization to ensure that all autonomous workers have the necessary infrastructure to be socially and economically protected in an affordable way.

The New Idea

The globalisation and digitalisation of the workforce has led to an increase in discontinuous, freelance, project-based work. While this allows for more work autonomy and opens-up new avenues to the labour market, phenomena like uberisation combined with an outdated European post-industrial social security systems and legal work statuses has led to a new category of precarious independent workers. Sandrino Graceffa calls this group “autonomous workers”. However, Sandrino aims to bring a more stabilized environment to freelancers, artists, early stage entrepreneurs, and those earning income independently of any given company organization.

To address the challenges of this changing style of work, Sandrino has invented a new form of organisation that serves these autonomous workers, called SMart. SMart is the first and largest organization working with autonomous workers. This collectively-owned enterprise technically “employs” autonomous workers and allows them to practice their own independent activity while benefiting from the secure work conditions of salaried work. By combining a worker’s expected revenue over the year, SMart offers each worker stabilized contracts based on their expected income (trued up at year end). This “salary” also comes with the social protection afforded traditional employees in the rest of society. In addition, SMart offers a large array of high-quality technological educational, administrative and legal tools aimed at facilitating, simplifying and stabilizing their work.

By organizing in a collective enterprise model, Sandrino enables the members to design the organization around their own needs, thus democratizing freelancing. Through SMart, Sandrino also mobilizes individuals and institutions, including workers, unions, government, academics, industry and the media. He aims to ensure that Belgian and European politicians are preparing and ready to react to this individualization of the workforce.

With over 120,000 SMart members across Europe, Sandrino is spreading the SMart collective enterprise model across Europe to ensure each European country. He also aims to create a worldwide ecosystem around secure autonomous work.

The Problem

Labor is mutating. Globalization, digitalization and the rise of the platform Economy have opened the ground for new forms of work organization. While many workers still enjoy permanent contracts, the trend increasingly shifts toward flexible and discontinued careers. In Europe, self-employment constitutes 16.4% of the labor market. In Belgium, the number of hours worked by agency workers rose by over 11% in 2015 alone. Researchers have identified increasing alternative work arrangements such as increases in temporary work, project-based work, freelance work; new “hybrid” forms of work, between independent and salaried; increases in part time contracts and decrease in long term contracts; increase in home working (decrease in proximity between workers and companies). Furthermore, the phenomenon of uberisation in which platforms create quasi-instantaneous mini-contracts between workers and clients, has also led to an increasing amount of independent, flexible workers with high levels of autonomy with payment by task, service or sale.

While these new forms of work open-up the labour market to people who are persistently shut out and offers more autonomy to workers, it has also led to the birth of a new category of precarious workers (which Sandrino calls autonomous workers). These autonomous workers who accumulate small contracts and project-based work often find themselves in difficult working and living conditions with little social security. This is partly due to 20th century legal work frameworks and social security systems which are no longer adapted to our current labour needs. These systems were conceived in a post-industrial context to support blue collar workers (factory workers; coal miners etc.) who worked in subordination to companies[4], with smaller salaries and a strong need for redistributive support, whilst independent workers did not need the same amount of social security[5]. However, as the structures of labour have changed, many autonomous workers are unable to afford to live decently with the independent status which is heavily taxed, provides little social security and requires extremely complex and burdensome administrative work.

The rise of 20th century social security protection was also created because of strong union representatives for the working class. Because these forms of work are relatively new, there is a lack of political and public representation of these new autonomous workers. Unions support salaried workers and employer representatives support independents and employers. There are no hybrid structures aimed at supporting autonomous workers. Finally, because of the nature of autonomous work, it is a highly atomized workforce. Many do not have a collective voice, collective identity and work relationships and have difficulty reuniting and collectivising their own force.

The Strategy

Sandrino is using the cooperative model to offer all autonomous workers the resources and structures to work with dignity and stability. The collectively-owned enterprise model allows workers to be SMart “employees” and benefit from all of SMart’s tools, thus allowing them to benefit from the social security, insurance and stability of salaried workers, while remaining completely autonomous in their choice of work, hours, clients, fees etc. To finance the tool fund and social security (including pension, sick leave, unemployment) 6.5% is charged for all activities, tasks or services workers bill through SMart. This has also allowed for the creation of a guaranty fund and new tools that will provide an answer to the future needs of the sector. The cooperative model means that all the profit margin made from the tools is reinvested into the development of new tools and development efforts. Workers also pay a yearly €30 membership fee which is used as a deposit (making workers shareholders as well as clients). Although the organisation will grow in revenue, shareholder shares do not grow as it is a non-for profit organisation. However, workers can still receive their yearly membership fees when they leave the enterprise.

SMart has a highly efficient technological platform to manage and support the administrative work of its members. The digital platform with a low-cost type technological tool, allows workers to manage the services and projects they bill efficiently without having to create their own independent activity. They can benefit from a variety of tools including training, working spaces, cash-flow to buy material, legal advice and more. SMart also combines and mutualises all the revenues billed to SMart to make a financial guarantee fund which allows SMart to offer each worker a stable monthly contract based on the calculation of their expected income (which can be re-adapted in the next years).

SMart is creating partnerships with national and multinational companies (including Deliveroo and Take it Easy, two large European and Belgian delivery platforms) to ensure that platform workers can benefit from social protection and stability. Indeed, for two years, 3000 Deliveroo bikers, usually independent workers, became SMart workers allowing them to receive insurance, benefits and stable, hourly pay. SMart was also able to pay the indemnity of 400 Take it Easy bikers when the company went bankrupt.

The cooperative model also provides users with more power and autonomy and reduces bureaucracy and hierarchy within the organization. To ensure that workers remain at the centre of the organisation's evolution, SMart exercises a shared governance model in which SMart members and stakeholders are encouraged to participate in the decision-making of the organisation. Through the collective enterprise space, Sandrino has made Smart a space for this highly individualized workforce to organize themselves collectively. Sandrino led a participative process called SMart in Progress to define the strategy on the future of smart involving 2500 users, employees, partners and other stakeholders. Today SMart in Progress is aimed at facilitating the interaction, debate and organization between SMart members across the different places SMart where Smart is implemented. SMart in Progress offers its members tools and information which has allowed for the creation of:
1. Four working groups created to develop SMart IT tools, financial and operational tools, create an ethical committee and work on SMart’s public image.
2. A guide for all SMart users to become SMart ambassadors to learn to talk ad advocate about SMart, autonomous workers and the future of SMart.

SMart in Progress also encourages debate about new forms of work across SMart users, and beyond. Through this representative space and with a democratic decision-making process, Sandrino is mobilizing this workforce and creating a real collective voice for autonomous workers and creating a space where they voice their rights and concerns.

SMart is at the centre of European debates on the future of work. With their strong track-record and field experience they are also creating alliances with international academics, think-tanks and working groups to explain and create debate on the new evolution of work. They are publishing research and proposing solutions to future forms of work, the transformation of current forms of work and proposing solutions. They also organize regular events and forums like “24h on the Future of Work” and “Cooperatives as a Solution to the Transformation of Work” where they invite experts and academics to create a debate.

Sandrino is creating a political and social debate around the future of work and ensuring that autonomous workers are being adequately represented. Sandrino has activated a whole Belgian ecosystem including unions, politicians, NGOs and companies around the topic of the future of labor. Sandrino has also opened a strong dialogue with unions including the CSC and the FGTB (previously very critical of SMart) and an employer representative UCM, which advocates for the rights of independents and companies. Sandrino also regularly presents SMart and advocates for its workers in front of major Belgian political parties (Green Party; Humanist Party) to showcase the importance of facilitating and supporting organizations like SMart for the future of work. Finally, Sandrino is also advocating at a European level for the importance of considering autonomous workers in the political agenda.

Sandrino also wrote a book, “Refaire le monde… Du travail” (Reinventing the world… Of Work) in which he calls for the reconstruction of the social security system that would prioritize the work of autonomous workers, and thus, social innovation. Since his arrival at SMart, Sandrino has also been active in national and international press (Le Soir, La Libre Belgique, Les Echos, Le Monde…) and is ensuring that this new category of workers is being considered by the public.

SMart has spread to 9 European countries (Belgium, France, Holland, Sweden, Austria, Italy, Germany, Spain and Hungary) and 40 European cities has over 120 000 members. They are being solicitinvitedated in South-Africa, Canada and even Asia to scale SMart. Sandrino is realising that their current scaling methodology is limiting the development of SMart and is thus creating a step-by-step franchising model. Realizing that SMart cannot be the only actor solving the problems of autonomous work, Sandrino is also building capacity with other organizations, like employment cooperatives or other shared enterprises. SMart is mapping all organizations working to support autonomous and freelance workers to ensure that together they can have a greater impact on policy and create more solutions for workers. Finally, by spreading the SMart, cooperative model, Sandrino is creating concrete proof of the need for policy change to support autonomous workers. Their growing, impressive track record will demonstrate the need for policies that support autonomous workers and even the need for a new category of workers, which could look like a hybrid between salaried workers and independent workers.

The Person

Sandrino was the ninth child in a family of ten children. His southern Italian parents migrated to Arras, France in the 1950s where his father worked as a coal-miner. The modest but united Graceffa family was very involved in the Italian community, initiated by Italian catholic missions, Italian associations and activity clubs. Sandrino always took an active part in communal life and collective, associative activities and realized the strength of communal, solidarity support. At the age of 14, following an earthquake in Naples in 1981, Sandrino organized a collection of funds to help construct a masonry school to teach Neapolitan youths to rebuild their houses. At the age of 15, Sandrino co-launched a local radio called PFM, and later became the first employee.

After studying social work and completing multiple internships across France and Italy, Sandrino started to distance himself from the classical forms of social work of direct support, which he thought did not tackle the root of the problem and started seeing the efficiency of coordinating individuals and empowering them through activities.

He worked on the restructuring of an abandoned Lille neighborhood and a director’s position in the Lille Center for Communal Action. In the early 2000s, he took over a public agency which helps individuals create their own economic activities and helped coal miners create their own professional activities, helping them go back to a pre-industrial and pre-paternalist framework where they were empowered to create their own enterprises and organization. However, he questioned the idea that autonomous and entrepreneurial work must necessarily be associated with the idea of success of the self-made man. He also realized that his clients who were used to having colleagues and a collective work life suddenly found themselves very isolated. Sandrino realized that individual enterprises are not always the solution and that instead we should find more collective solutions.

After creating a consultant organization called Multicity, in 2006, Sandrino co-founded the first entrepreneur’s cooperative in France, Grands Ensemble. This organisation allowed small scale entrepreneurs to be technically employed by the cooperative and thus benefit from social security and administrative help. However, Sandrino realised that the staff spent a lot of time working on the burdensome administration of the workers with very little time to innovate within the organisation.

In 2004, Sandrino first met the original founders of SMart Sandrino who were looking to expand the organisation. SMart was still a welfare service for artists in Belgium with basic but interesting technologically administrative tools and was facing bankruptcy. Fascinated with SMart’s technological tools and convinced that the way artists worked was the archetype of contemporary work, Sandrino saw an opportunity to use the SMart to answer to a global problem of individualisation of work. He worked on optimising and developing more technological tools to standardize them and fit the needs of more workers. In 2007, Sandrino went through a merged his cooperative Grands Ensembles with SMart to create SMart France. In 2014, he became CEO of the entire organisation and transformed the organisation to support all autonomous workers.

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