Q&A with Guy Tchami, Simel Esim and Waltteri Katajamaki from the International Labour Organization
How will challenges over work affect co-ops?
Co-operative enterprises are seeing a renaissance to meet the expanding and increasingly complex needs of members, providing services, advancing livelihoods and creating jobs.
There is expectation for both job creation and destruction with technological changes. While automatisation is likely to result in job losses, existing jobs will be transformed in some sectors (eg: transport, manufacturing) and some new jobs will be created in others (eg: the platform economy).
Can co-ops offer a solution to these challenges?
In terms of economic crises, co-ops in many parts of the world have reported growth in membership and business volume in a range of sectors from banking to housing and the platform economy.
Financial co-ops have generally fared better than the investor-owned banks due to their combination of member ownership, control and benefit. Worker co-ops have survival rates that are at least as high as other types of enterprises.
Co-ops are well poised to respond to demographic changes – they have been engaging in the provision of care among diverse populations. There has also been a growing interest in social co-ops in general, including among youth and migrant populations.
With respect to environmental changes, co-ops are involved in adaptation – such as mutual insurance for crops, or agricultural co-operatives supporting diversification of crops and mitigation – such as renewable energy and agroforestry. In urban areas, co-ops exist in waste management, such as waste-picker co-ops in countries such as India and Brazil. These provide much-needed services and help their members to formalise and access health, training, and financial services.
Platform co-ops are being formed by gig economy workers in response to the challenges they are facing, including low pay, the quality of work, and lack of voice and representation.
Do these challenges offer co-ops an opportunity?
Co-ops have a unique opportunity to make an impact, given the growing global quest for new forms of business and growth models. Other social, environmental and economic movements working toward restoring rights and securing sustainable futures recognise co-ops as sharing similar values and principles.
Yet, despite their demonstrated resilience, viability and potential, co-ops are not mainstream economic players in the majority of the economies because of internal (lack of governance know-how) and external (legal and regulatory) impediments.
The co-operative model may not provide a comprehensive response strategy to the changes in the world of work, but it has been identified by the UN as one of the diverse set of economic actors that can help achieve more sustainable futures. It is encouraging to see that in recent years the international co-operative movement has also been recognising the need for increased advocacy and representation in global policy discussions.
How can co-ops help ensure new employment offers a decent income and quality of work?
Emerging sectors and populations need the support of established co-op movements to transmit their know-how on governance. Co-ops need to be developed with an eye for the rights and protection of workers, members and users.
The financial tools and intermediaries that are best suited to support the expansion and replication of good co-op practices need to be developed by financial co-ops. A better understanding on co-ops requires their inclusion in education and training curricula. Representation of the co-op movement needs to be strengthened for effective engagement in the future of work debates and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
International guidelines on co-op statistics need to be activated to assess the impact of co-ops and to conduct comparative analyses on the advantages and disadvantages of different governance models.
Co-ops also need to show their comparative advantage in addressing decent work deficits. For instance in agriculture, the role of co-operatives in eliminating worst forms of child labour can be activated. In the platform economy, the emerging co-operative practices must be communicated to the trade unions and political parties.