How are co-operatives promoting decent work in global supply chains?

Over 6,000 delegates attended the 105th International Labour Conference in Geneva, where the theme was Building a Future with Decent Work. The conference was also an opportunity to highlight...

Over 6,000 delegates attended the 105th International Labour Conference in Geneva, where the theme was Building a Future with Decent Work. The conference was also an opportunity to highlight the contribution made by co-operatives to decent work.

Two documents with reference to co-operatives were approved at the conference’s plenary session on 10 June. In its report, the Committee on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains recommends that governments should target specific measures at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), including co-operatives and other entities of the social economy, “to increase their productivity and promote decent work, including opportunities to formalise, further develop, upgrade and advance to higher segments of the supply chain”.

The Committee on Employment and Decent Work for the Transition to Peace also mentions co-ops in its conclusions, which were adopted by the conference based on consensus. The document recommends that member states should, in consultation with the most representative workers’ and employers’ organisations, adopt inclusive measures for ensuring decent employment and income-generation opportunities through co-operatives and other social economy initiatives.

In preparation for the conference, the International Co-operative Alliance published a brief that looks at co-operatives in global supply chains. Co-ops are contributing to the promotion and advancement of global supply chains, and, through it, to decent jobs.

The brief notes that the co-operative movement was born as a way to shorten supply chains. In 1902 the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) acquired its first tea plantation in what is now Sri Lanka as a way to vertically integrate its operations through a global supply chain.

“The major difference between co-operatives and other business models in terms of supply chain intervention is that co-operatives integrate their values and principles into those supply chains, and not just to reap the economic benefits,” says the document.

Co-operatives were also the first organisations to allow women to vote and own shares, and have been strong advocates of labour rights, reduction of working hours and better working conditions. Moreover, co-ops have been pioneers in promoting many product-related innovations such as Fairtrade, organic products, nutritional labelling and cruelty-free production, adds the brief.

The Alliance’s head of policy, Rodrigo Gouveia, represented the global co-operative movement at the conference. In an interview for the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit, he said the issue of decent work in global supply chains was very important for co-operatives.

Co-operatives provided scale to small and marginalised groups, he explained, enabling them to access markets, information, technology and finance. They also come with a governance model that allows participation and inclusion of all stakeholders, including workers, in the management of the enterprise.

Mr Gouveia pointed out that co-operatives redistributed the economic benefits of the operation of global supply chains to their members and stakeholders, from small-scale producers, to workers and consumers.

Also at the event was Jean-Louis Bancel, board member of the Alliance and chair of Crédit Cooperatif, Coop Fr and the International Co-operative Banking Association. Mr Bancel highlighted the special relationship between the Alliance and the ILO, which dates back to the first ILO director, Albert Thomas, a French co-operator.

“We are glad to see that the ILO has included two important items for co-operatives in the Conference agenda: the role of SMEs in the global supply chains to create sustainable jobs; and the question of helping populations in case of crises,” he told the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit. 

Mr Bancel took part in the discussions on decent work for the transition to peace. He said the topic was one the Alliance itself had been looking at.

Individual members from co-operatives from across the world were also present, including Elizabeth Nzilani Peter from Machakos Cooperative Union of Kenya, a coffee co-operative. Ms Peter represented the Homeworkers’ Working Group in Africa, which includes workers from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa under WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organizing).

She thinks co-operatives play a key role in the global supply chains by eliminating middlemen for the benefit of their members. They can also promote decent work by integrating their values and principles into the supply chain, said Ms Peter. She was particularly interested in the discussion on global supply chains.

“My expectation out of this discussion is recognition and visibility of the homeworkers and support from trade unions and governments. Recognition of co-operatives’ role in the Global Supply Chain is key as they improve returns to their members and improve labour conditions,” she said in another interview for the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit.

In addition to the global supply chain discussion and the transition to peace discussion, co-operatives were also mentioned in the debates on youth employment and formalising the informal economy. 

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