Papers and scissors – in the African district of Brussels, a cooperative provides hairdressers and tailors with a way out of informality

Papers and scissors – in the African district of Brussels, a cooperative provides hairdressers and tailors with a way out of informality
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At the corner of Rue de la Paix and Rue de la Longue-Vie, in the heart of Matongé, a neighbourhood of Brussels influenced by a rich mix of African cultures – but increasingly under threat from gentrification – stands a hair salon, just like the many others in the surrounding streets. This one, however, has a slightly broader mission than the traditional fades and braids. It is a collaborative workspace, open to self-employed hair and beauty professionals. It is also home to the offices of the RCOOP cooperative, which has been running a social project for the past two years, mainly but not exclusively based in Matongé.

In 2017, the Labour Inspectorate of the City of Brussels highlighted the persistent problem of informal work amongst service and care sector workers in the neighbourhood. In an attempt to find a solution, a group of social actors working in the social and collaborative economy launched a project to set up a cooperative, having observed that many barbers, hairdressers and tailors, mostly on piecework pay, were often faced with a series of barriers preventing them from finding a way, on their own, of working legally.

Now the cooperative not only helps its members with their paperwork and administrative procedures but also offers legal advice, training in business management and experience sharing. At RCOOP, members all receive pay in the form of emoluments based on the volume of business they do, they all own equal shares in the organisation and can all take part in the decisions concerning it, bringing an element of collective commitment and responsibility to a workforce that usually operates in isolation.

 

Most of the workers involved in the project are people with a migration background, and often with qualifications or experience that are not recognised in Belgium. Some of them also face barriers such as difficulties with the language or a lack of familiarity with the local tax and legal system.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

The cooperative offers to take care of the members’ accounting. “Self-employed people are highly prone to ‘slip-ups’. The first cause of bankruptcy is non-payment of VAT. Because you have to think ahead and make provisions for it. You also have to think about social security contributions,” explains Marie-Charlotte Pottier, one of the project’s coordinators, who adds that there are also too few contact points they can turn to for help. “It’s not their accountant who is going to give them business management advice,” she adds.

 

The RCOOP cooperative was originally created to help hairdressers in the Matongé district to legalise their status as workers. It now has 14 members, not only hairdressers and barbers but also beauticians, tailors and care workers. Marie-Charlotte Pottier, here in the ‘shared salon’ on Rue de la Paix, attends to each of them individually.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

The first year of the project was dedicated to ‘recruiting’ cooperators in various trades. “They were afraid of me at first,” laughs Marie-Charlotte. But little by little, a sense of trust was established. Now there are both men and women, people who are just starting out or who are coming out of informal work for the first time, full-time and part-time workers. The profiles are varied and the cooperative remains fairly open, even to people from outside the neighbourhood. In time, the business model will be based on funding drawn from the members’ gross profits, which requires a long-term commitment from all those involved. For now, however, the project still has to complete its trial phase before going on to manage without the public subsidies it still receives.

 

An expert in braiding and wigs, Olayinka, here in her shop, tells us how scared she was of administrative procedures. “I know nothing about accounting and I find it very stressful.” The co-op made her realise that having legal status has its advantages.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

Originally from Nigeria, Olayinka has just returned from maternity leave. She has five sons and also works part-time for a cleaning company. For her, as someone who still speaks very little French, receiving administrative support is a life changer. Her first attempt at running her own business didn’t go very well, pushing her into informal work. But RCOOP was able to convince her that, with a little support, she could recover her legal status, by registering as a ‘complementary self-employed worker’. Since then, Olayinka doesn’t think twice about crossing the street to visit the RCOOP offices to ask any questions she has or just to keep in touch and talk about what’s happening in the neighbourhood.

 

Fanta is currently “trying out” working as a self-employed person. She makes appointments on demand, with a customer base made up of acquaintances, and rents a salon together with another beautician, right next to Place Saint-Boniface. It was thanks to Olayinka, a true ambassador of the cooperative in the community, that she decided to take the plunge and start her own business.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

A mother of five, Fanta attended a hairdressing school in Guinea-Conakry, but her qualifications are not recognised in Europe, so she was asked to go back to school to obtain equivalent qualifications and professional status. On reaching Belgium she began working as a chambermaid and in the restaurant trade. Over the past few months, she has been “trying out” her business as a hairdresser, thanks to a specific regulation in the Brussels region that allows her to work while still receiving her unemployment benefit and setting aside her earnings. If, after an 18-month trial period, the experience is successful, she will be able to become a full member of RCOOP.

 

“I want to be above board. It’s important for me to feel secure, to have things in order,” says Rahim, adding that he doesn’t want to have to depend on welfare benefits. A trained tailor, he rents a small workshop with Diallo, another member of the cooperative, where he works tirelessly at his sewing machine by day and then as a hotel security guard at night.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

Rahim, who, like Fanta, is also from Guinea, spent two years in a reception centre before receiving his papers. He was offered training to become a cleaner, a job he did for seven years. He now works nights as a hotel security guard and has launched his sewing business at the same time, having worked as a tailor back home. He says he wanted his business to be legal from the very outset.

He found joining the cooperative, a year ago now, to be very straightforward. He simply had to buy a “share”, worth €50, to become a member, and it is RCOOP that takes care of his accounting and provides him with a VAT number. He has no paperwork to take care of, other than providing the co-op with a register of his earnings. The cooperative also set up a self-loan system for him to buy his sewing machine. The ‘general terms and conditions of sale’ are posted on the wall, a few rules to remind customers that the two tailors are running a serious business, to avoid any little schemes or attempts at haggling.

 

Alphonse is registered as ‘full-time self-employed’, but without fixed hours. He doesn’t depend on a boss and, since the former chemist from DR Congo joined the cooperative almost a year ago, he finds it has helped satisfy his need for a lasting business venture. He has even created a loyalty card system.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

Barbers and hairdressers, Alphonse and Grace ‘rent a chair’ at Salon Frank. They explain that the former owner did not declare those working there. After several inspections and the buyout of the salon by another trader on the same street, who wanted to work within the rules, the two men accepted the invitation to join the cooperative. “We also wanted to work with more peace of mind,” they point out.

 

Grace comes to the salon every day and is starting to build a base of customers who know him. He rents a chair and most of his business is walk-in trade, customers dropping in for a haircut or beard trim without an appointment. In DR Congo, he studied pedagogy, but in Belgium he became a barber after training on the job with other professionals.

Photo: Julie de Bellaing

The cooperators check in with Marie-Charlotte once a month. “But I also like to go to their place of work to see how things are going,” she says. Her visits often bring her into contact with other workers from the neighbourhood, with whom she can chat with about the cooperative’s missions and activities, such as events planned at a shared salon, a discussion meeting or an information workshop held over coffee. And so, little by little, the network is being built and the cooperative is growing.

This story has been translated from French.