A CO-OPERATIVE Development Agency is taking positive action to address the under-representation of black and minority ethnic (BME) workers in the UK co-op sector.
Avon CDA, based in Bristol, appointed David John earlier this year on a nine-month contract to provide targeted business development support to BME communities.
A former Co-op Party county councillor, Mr John (50) is also the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Bristol. He is concentrating his efforts on those wards in the city with the highest BME populations, such as St Paul's (West Indian) and Easton (Asian). These are also the wards that have the highest unemployment rates.
Mr John is aiming to get the co-operative message across to community development workers and community leaders in the hope that they will then signpost new inquiries to the CDA. He is also giving presentations at local mosques, temples, black churches and other community gatherings.
Mr John also plans to target existing BME business people who may be interested in converting a business to a co-operative.
He said the idea of co-operation and mutualism is not an alien concept for BME communities: "India has the largest number of co-ops in the world, with 230 million members. This year is the centenary of its Co-operatives Act.
"Black American churches have a solid basis of mutual support, finance pooling and coming together to foster enterprise and development. And credit unions only really started in the UK in the 1960s when Caribbean immigrants decided they needed the benefits of such co-ops in their new home country."
But while BME workers may have felt inspired by co-operation, those arriving in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s faced practical problems like access to finance, through discrimination from banks.
Even in the rare cases where finance was available, the Muslim dictat against usury (interest on a loan) prevented it from being accepted. The post-war immigrants found themselves forced into collectivism and pooled resources to buy residential, cultural and religious properties.
The next generation of BME workers ? those born and educated in the UK ? have been less hampered by access to finance, but the dominance of sole trader businesses in the 1980s and 1990s has meant that the ideal of co-operation and mutuality is no longer as strong.
Mr John is aiming to re-introduce that ideal to young BME workers in Bristol.
He has already identified a number of business sectors that may offer co-operative opportunities for such workers. These include restaurant and food businesses, music production and specialist services to local authorities.
"Local authorities are very keen to boost the ethnic intake to their day-care centres," Mr John explained, "but many people of Muslim and West Indian extraction are put off by the lack of acceptable food that's available in such centres.
"We are working with a group that currently provides a catering service for one home on a voluntary basis. We're hoping that this group will become a co-op and that it will then be in a position to bid for contracts to supply a number of different homes.
"Another group we're working with is a number of hip-hop artists who are looking to form a collective to promote their work."
Mr John's work is supported by Single Regeneration Budget, through Bristol Regeneration Partnership, and Bristol Means Business Consortium.
Contact: David John for further details.
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