Future of work Q&A: Paul Nowak, TUC deputy general secretary

'In this fast-changing environment, co-ops may need to invest in expertise, so they are clear sighted ahead'

How will challenges over work affect co-ops?

They will be very disruptive to existing models of doing business, or providing services – whether that’s public, private or mutual. A lot of disruption will come from new firms that become big players very quickly. The time from start-up to billion-dollar valuation has dramatically shortened, with some companies achieving it in under three years.

Paul Nowak (Photo: TUC)

In this fast-changing environment, co-ops may need to invest in expertise, so they are clear sighted ahead. They need to understand how these changes will affect their market and their model. They need to identify where their future opportunities lie. And they need a clear strategy to manage risks and pursue new opportunities.

How can the co-op movement offer a solution to these challenges?

As public spending bodies, co-operative councils can do positive procurement. Automation can reduce a supplier’s costs, but costs should not be the sole consideration. Co-ops should require suppliers to meet minimum standards on staff consultation, re-training and re-deployment when automation takes place.

Multi-stakeholder co-ops, where workers and service users have a share in the enterprise, can allow both a greater voice. And for older or disabled people with care needs, it allows the pooling of personal care budgets to commission services. Co-ops also have an advantage in not having to make repayments to private equity backers, so they can invest more in the service and workforce.

Do these challenges offer co-ops an opportunity?

There’s still a bit of a ‘Wild West’ feel to this frontier. And we see some companies exploiting that in damaging ways for workers. This is where governments need to get a grip. They need to make sure that the regulatory environment keeps up with these changes to reward positive employment models, and prevent abusive ones.

Co-ops can offer ways for insecure and self-employed workers to collectivise for better representation and bargaining power, particularly in partnership with trade unions. Unions in creative industries have a good track record of this, such as the Musician’s Union’s work with co-ops of self-employed music teachers.

Related: Q&A with the International Labour Organization

How can co-ops help ensure new employment offers a decent income and quality of work?

If co-ops and mutuals think they can take the high road alone, they may be undercut by less scrupulous competitors. So they should join unions in lobbying government for stronger employment rights, and a higher minimum wage. Commissioners can play a part too, by not commissioning on a lowest cost basis, and recognising the social value co-ops and mutuals add in relational services, such as care.

Modernisation of workers’ rights is essential. We’ve seen new technologies being used to informalise the relationship between a worker and employer – for example the platform built by Uber. We need new laws that don’t allow these grey areas that are being exploited to deny workers’ rights like holiday or enrolment to a company pension scheme. So we hope all co-ops will support the TUC’s Great Jobs Agenda to improve rights and conditions for workers.

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