Meet … Simel Esim

The thinker, do-er and co-operator who leads the ILO's Cooperatives Unit

Simel Esim heads the Cooperatives Unit of the International Labour Organization in Geneva. Prior to this, she was a senior technical specialist in the ILO’s Regional Office for Arab States. Her experience includes working in policy advocacy, research, capacity building, programme management, and monitoring and evaluation. She focuses on co-operative and social and solidarity economy development, informal employment and women’s economic empowerment issues. She holds an MA in International Economics and Middle East Studies and a Ph.D. in Economics.

What does a typical working day look like for you?

I often wake up with a bunch of new ideas and can’t wait to share them with my colleagues. Once I arrive at the office, there is a lot of diversity to the work – there are impromptu consultations and brainstorming sessions within the ILO COOP team. We also prioritise engagement with our colleagues in the field offices and requests from ILO constituents and partners. As with most of us in the changing world of work, a lot is done through video conferences and Skype, as well as email and phone calls, even if we may not be able to engage face to face. I am usually surprised how fast the work day comes to an end. There is often little time for reading and writing substantive pieces, so those usually go home and travel around with me – there are always some very well-travelled reports in my bag.

What is the best thing about the job?

I love working with the ILO COOP team that consists of a dynamic and creative bunch. With them we have developed a wide portfolio and are continuing to grow it. Supporting the professional growth of this largely young and diverse group of committed and hard working women and men from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe is important. I learn a great deal from them every day. My favourite part is the brainstorming sessions where we come up with ideas – which for me almost always ends up being about drawing with coloured pens.

And the hardest?

Coming up with ideas for new initiatives is the fun and easy part of course – but then bringing them to life takes a great deal of hard work and patience. Doing the hard work is not a big deal, really, but having the patience to wait for things to get off the ground after sowing the seeds is sometimes difficult for me. So I need to hold back my eagerness and even impatience for things to happen. I am therefore grateful to my colleagues when they remind me to allow for things to take their time to evolve. And as I grow older I am hoping that I may be getting slightly better at letting things take their course.
Externally, of course, the changing international development landscape poses some challenges but I am also positive that the search for alternatives is resulting in the (re)discovery of co-operatives and other social and solidarity economy entities.

How did you get involved in the ILO?

I was working in a research institute in Washington, DC for six years when I was invited to apply to a position at the ILO Regional Office for Arab States. After spending 14 years in DC I was ready for a change and to go back to the field at that point, so I took the plunge.

Had you worked with co-operatives in the past?

I come from a long line of staunch co-operators (housing and consumer co-ops) and at age seven I was a co-op club president at school in Turkey. I also worked with and wrote on women’s rural, financial and artisanal co-ops in Turkey, India and Arab States before I joined ILO COOP.

The International Labour Conference (ILC) is approaching. Will co-operatives be on the agenda?

The conference is an annual event that takes place at the end of May / early June each year, with the agenda set by the governing body of the organisation. The ILO recommendation on promotion of co-operatives (No. 193) was adopted at the ILC in 2002 with the active participation of co-operative movement representatives. In the recent past the constituents have referred to co-operatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises and organisations during standard setting discussions on formalising the informal economy or peace and resilience.

During this year’s conference, there will be a standard-setting discussion on violence at work, a general discussion on effective ILO development co-operation and a recurrent discussion on social dialogue and tripartism. Government, workers’ and employers’ organisation representatives from countries with strong co-operative and social and solidarity economy movements will be most likely to bring it up in these discussions. We also look forward to having a representative of the ICA there with us during this year’s ILC, where they will make a short presentation on the co-operative movement’s view of the key issues being discussed.

With the changing nature of the world of work, what would be your advice for co-operatives?

In the changing world of work there is a need for alternatives that can reverse the deterioration of worker rights. In this context it would be important for the global co-operative movement to demonstrate its commitment to decent work and how co-ops can and do offer alternatives to the retreat
of worker rights.

Such commitment would benefit from being substantiated with concrete actions. For instance, the bigger and more established co-ops can show their support for emerging co-ops to address world of work challenges, like those set up by unemployed youth, low-income women or freelance workers. Codes of conduct for eliminating worse forms of child labour, forced labour and discrimination would be good to adopt as part of a “Co-operatives for decent work agenda”.
The engagement of the co-operative movement with the changing world of work discussions, including the ILO director general’s initiative on the future of work, is also essential. In the past couple of months comments were submitted by CICOPA and the ICA on the inception report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work. An international conference on co-operatives and changing world of work took place in India last week and came up with a common basic understanding statement. These are clear signs of the commitment from the international co-operative movement to work toward decent work in this changing landscape.

  • You can find more about the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit here, and find Simel Esim on Twitter here.
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