The co-operatives empowering immigrants across the world

In the UK and across the world, co-operatives help provide a better life for immigrants and asylum seekers. While the British media continues to debate the positive and...

In the UK and across the world, co-operatives help provide a better life for immigrants and asylum seekers. While the British media continues to debate the positive and negative effects of immigration, little attention has been given to successful enterprises set up or led by immigrants – many of these being co-operatives.

A number of immigrants work in the informal economic sector, where jobs are irregular, poorly paid and employees are vulnerable to exploitation. By creating new job opportunities, co-operatives can help empower immigrants and refugees. Credit unions, many of them founded by immigrants, also provide financial services for low-income people from across the UK. In fact, British credit unions began in 1964 when a group of Caribbean families set up Horsney Co-operative, the UK’s first credit union, in North London.

The majority of immigrant worker co-operatives are start-up, with support from external or community non-profit organisations. Sometimes immigrant workers themselves are the ones organising the co-operative.

Creating jobs

In the UK co-operatives help empower immigrants, enabling them to work in a fair and equal environment. For example, a little factory in Southampton is employing migrant women who have been through difficult experiences. “Who Made Your Pants?” was established in 2008 by founding member Becky John, a keen supporter of Amnesty International, who decided to set up a co-operative enterprise to provide job opportunities for Southampton’s refugee population.

Becky John, founder of "Who made your pants?" with Batol from Sudan.
Becky John, founder of “Who made your pants?” with Batol from Sudan.

Women employed by the factory are primarily refugees from conflict zones – countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. It is therefore important for them to feel safe, and a warm and friendly environment for them to work in goes a long way towards achieving this.

The enterprise uses fabric leftover from big underwear factories at the end of the season to create beautiful underwear that has had ‘a great start in life’.

The factory employs one full-time member of staff – Becky – and seven part-time workers, including an office manager who is not drawn from a refugee background. Once women go through their probation period, they are then eligible to become a member of the co-operative. The co-operative is also supported by many volunteers, who help run the website, answer calls and weigh fabric waste.

While working in the factory, women also gain language and business skills – and last year the organisation was ranked sixth in the top 25 most ethical firms by Social Enterprises UK.

One of the employees of Who Made Your Pants? is Batol, who is originally from Sudan, one of the world’s most dangerous countries to live in. She moved to the UK hoping for the chance to give her children a better life.

Batol cutting red lace.
Batol cutting red lace.

While working for the co-op she learned how to use the sewing machines and she is now particularly adept at fiddly jobs like finishing seams. She said her life is “completely different now,” adding that it is easier for her to provide for her family.

In south Wales, around 5% of the 40,000 inhabitants of Llanelli come from Poland. Following their country’s ascension to the European Union, Polish migrants moved to the town to work in nearby meat processing factories. However, many were being exploited by employment agencies that tied their accommodation to their pay, with low-pay, long hours, debt and extortionate rents.

To address this situation, Save Easy, a local credit union, asked the Welsh Assembly for support to set up an organisation that would offer advice and guidance to Polish workers. They received funding and, in 2006, they created the Polish-Welsh Mutual Association (PWMA), which now advises hundreds of Poles on financial, business, benefits and employment matters, charging only minimal fees for phone calls. They also help vulnerable workers evicted from housing by employment agencies to find temporary accommodation.

The association employs four Polish workers that provide advice and assistance at separate premises, and is the only organisation of its kind in the United Kingdom.

Polish-born Halina Ashley is the Operations Manager at Save Easy and Secretary-Project Manager of PWMA. She comes from a family of co-operators, having been involved in co-ops in Poland. Through working at the PWMA, she has helped hundreds of Polish workers, while encouraging them to join trade unions.

The advice centre puts pressure on local supermarkets and other companies exploiting migrant workers, and also provides English language classes. Jeff Hopkins, General Manager of Save Easy and Chair of PWMA, says that although the situation of Polish workers is “by no means perfect”, the working conditions have substantially improved due to the work of Save Easy and PWMA.

Save Easy is today the second largest credit union in Wales, with over 3,000 active members, 300 of which are Polish. By joining the credit union Polish workers also get to learn about co-operative values and principles.

Tackling exploitation of immigrant workers

In the US, worker-owned co-operatives are regarded as good models of economic empowerment for the country’s immigrant workers, who are often exploited in the traditional workplace. Employers of domestic workers are excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which means that they are not required to pay a minimum wage or overtime. In September last year the Department of Labor announced the FLSA would finally extend minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers, but the changes will not take effect until January 2015.

If they can engage the support of external or community non-profit organisations, immigrant worker co-operatives stand a better chance of succeeding. These organisations can provide bottom-up support in building the technical skills required by potential co-operators, many of them unfamiliar with the co-operative model.

The Center for Family Life (CFFL), a neighbourhood-based family and social services organisation helps vulnerable New Yorkers build a better future for themselves and their families by setting up worker co-operatives.

One of these co-operatives is “We Can Do It” (Si Se Puede), a women-owned and run business designed to create living wage jobs and educational opportunities for its members. It was set up in 2006 by 19 worker-owners, but now has 51 members, all immigrants.

“Setting up co-ops and working together is more accessible than starting their own businesses, because they are able to pull in resources and skills,” says Katie Harrison, co-operative developer at the CFFL.

Building on the success of “We can do it”, the CFFL also helped another 16 immigrant women to launch Beyond Care Childcare Cooperative, an enterprise designed to provide excellent childcare services.

They chose the co-operative model because they believed that if workers receive 100% of the fee charged, they would devote 110% of themselves to the job at hand. Members are driven not only by their love of children and need to earn a living, but also by a commitment to fairness in wages and treatment. The result is that the women earn more – but as they are able to set their own schedule, they can also have more time to spend with their own families.

Estela Camargo is one of the 30 members of the co-operative. She moved to New York from Colombia in 2006.

“Being part of this childcare co-operative is very important to me because it is a way for people to support each other and work collectively as mothers,” she said.

Since its creation in 2008, the co-op has attracted more members and now includes 30 women aged 25 to 50, all mothers themselves. In addition to raising their own children, most have had experience working as babysitters, after-school programme employees or nannies.

Those who are not English language-proficient are enrolled in ESL classes – and all Beyond Care members complete business development and nanny training  during their probabtionary period. They are also given information about child nutrition.

Being part of a co-operative empowers women, who are more informed about their rights, more motivated and are also able to assert themselves, explained Ms Harrison.

The Center for Family Life is currently working with two other immigrant social enterprises, Golden Steps, an elder care co-operative and Émigré Gourmet, a catering co-operative.

They are also helping to set up dog walking and soccer training co-ops.

Furthering integration of immigrants in the local communities

According to Mei Hui, social enterprise programme co-ordinator at Olmec, a London-based charity championing race equality through economic and social justice, co-operatives and social enterprises can help address existing tensions within communities.

She said: “Enterprises such as Guarida Community Café, a community co-operative, offer employment opportunities in their catering business and they use their background to provide diverse catering options providing a niche market for themselves.”

Guarida founding member Rosa Gonçalves’ story began in her own community of Kidbrook, a deprived area of Greenwich. Rosa, born in Brazil,  set out to develop a community owned business that would generate work for the area, while combining her passion for food and catering.

Olmec is working closely with housing associations to identify ways that co-operatives and social enterprises can be better enablers through programmes such as the intermediate housing programme First Steps (now Homes for Londoners).

“You also have co-operative agencies such as Hackney Community Development (HCD) and Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency (GCDA) who have done enormous amounts of work with minority communities to encourage them to develop businesses, whether that be in horticulture, catering or asset development,” says Ms Hui.

In Canada, 92% of the 73 ethno-cultural and immigrant co-operatives are majority-owned by immigrant groups. According to the Canadian Cooperative Association, many of these provide services that support successful integration into Canadian society – such as education and training, healthcare and financial services.

A report by the Canadian Cooperative Association reveals that ethno-cultural and immigrant cooperatives have created over 1,100 jobs, with 74% of these being full-time positions. They are serving more than 152,000 members.

One of these is the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (MHBC) in Edmonton. The co-op is a group of 54 multicultural health brokers, all representing different cultural and linguistic communities in Edmonton. It was set up in 1994 by a group of 12 brokers following a three-year project conducted by a radical team of staff working in the Health Promotion Division. The co-op now serves over 2,000 families a year.

The 54 brokers own and control the co-operative, helping families new to Canada to bridge the gap between their own knowledge from their county and Canada’s health, social services, education, justice, immigration and employment support systems.

In 2012 they received the Public Interest Alberta’s award for advocacy for the public good.

“Our dream is that all sectors become our collaborative partners, and we are able to support them to be culturally aware and competent”, said Yvonne Chiu, one MHBC’s founding members.


One of the main challenges faced by migrants who wish to set up a co-operative is a lack of technical knowledge. Olmec, charity championing race equality through economic and social justice, has supported over 250 minority-led social enterprises across 32 boroughs in London, including 46 in the last 18 months.

Olmec was initially set up in 2003 as a charitable subsidiary of a housing association. In June 2010, it became an independent charity and also established a sister organisation, Co-operative Community Interest Company, to support the charity. Both Olmec Charitable Company and Olmec Co-operative CIC work to advance social justice and equality by helping to set up co-operatives and social enterprises.

Olmec CIC hosts Co-operative Diversity Action, offering strategies, resources and guidance to encourage more people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Refugee (BAMER) communities to get involved in co‑operative enterprise.

John Mayford, chief executive of Olmec believes co-operatives can bring new opportunities for migrant communities. “I hope it’s a challenge the Co-operative Movement is able to embrace,” he says. “If you look around the world, there are over 800 million co-operative members in 100 countries. The challenge for the co-op movement is to harness the talent and diversity of people moving the UK, as well as meeting the needs of our changing communities.”

The ethnic minority population in England and Wales was an increase of nearly 50% between 2001 to 2009 – rising from 672,000 in 2001 to 986,600 in 2009, according to data released last May by the Office for National Statistics. This means that 9.1 million people living in England and Wales – equivalent to one-sixth of the population – are now from a non-white background. London is the most ethnically-diverse city in the UK with 34% of the resident population made up of migrants.

Olmec CIC is working with co-operative development bodies as well as with the Co-operative Group – through the Enterprise Hub – supporting facilitation around engaging with communities.

For example, the CIC, assisted a new co-operative, Property Guardians in Cooperation Limited, to launch in South London. It will help owners of empty buildings avoid the increasing costs of commercial property guardian companies – and they are keen to connect with owners of empty properties.

According to Mr Mayford, migrants wishing to start-up co-operatives face two sets of challenges. As any other businesses, co-operatives face fierce competition, and need to negotiate issues such as market volatility and product-sourcing. A second set of barriers for migrants are those associated with moving to a new country – for example the ‘social capital’ issue of having networks and absorbing knowledge about how banking, infrastructure, markets and the statutory sector work. Statically, there are issues of discrimination faced by migrants of all ages: a 2012 report by Deloitte indicated that in the UK, white graduates are three times more likely than graduates from ethnic minority communities to be offered a position by a top British company. A survey in 2000 completed by 40 FTSE 100 companies showed that only 1% of senior management positions were held by people from ethnic minority communities and unemployment rates for ethnic minority communities are on average two to three times those of white communities.

In 2011, Olmec published a report assessing the main barriers faced by immigrants trying to create co-operatives and social enterprises. The report highlighted both a lack of culturally-tailored business support for and a lack of market research into minority-led social enterprises. Olmec is now the only organisation that supports specifically minority-led social enterprises.

“There is less support available for social enterprises than in 2011 because it’s a harsh funding environment,” says John Mayford. “It is important that the work that support organisations carry out continues, in order to stimulate, support and develop new co-operatives and  social enterprises.”

Faced with these challenges, immigrants try to make the most of the support available.

“In areas such as finance, you are seeing more models of sharia-compliant finance and micro credit models supporting women from BAMER backgrounds,” says Mei Hui.

“Our research from the First Steps programme indicates there is a general push by minority groups to move themselves towards social enterprise models, using whatever support services may be on offer, and peer mentoring themselves in order to bridge the cultural gaps.”

The First Steps programme expired on 31 March 2018 and the portal was moved to Homes for Londoners.

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