How can co-operatives contribute to the future of work?

With increasing challenges brought by demographic changes, technological developments, globalisation or climate change, the world of work is facing an uncertain future. In this respect, co-operatives are a major player, with more than a quarter of a million employees across the globe.

They are important not just because the number of jobs the create, but also because of the quality of work, says Simel Esim, chief of International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Cooperatives Unit. She explained how the UN’s new Sustainable Development goals include an objective that places a strong emphasis on decent work. “Co-ops have also been identified as means of implementation,” she said.

Speaking at a research conference in Antalya, Numan Ozcan, country director of the ILO’s office for Turkey, highlighted the important contribution of co-operatives to the creation of decent work.

“When we talk of decent work at the ILO we mean rights at work, employment opportunities (not only more jobs, but also jobs with better terms and conditions), enhancing social protection and strengthening social dialogue on work-related issues,” he said.

According to Mr Ozcan, co-operatives are important to the ILO’s mandate both as enterprises and organisations.

“First, co-operatives are a part of the world of work as they are labour market institutions. They are private sector enterprises and also employers. They generate direct and indirect employment.

“Second, as principle-driven, member-owned organisations co-operative values are conducive to advancing social, economic and environmental justice and workplace democracy. I was encouraged to hear that the co-operative movement has adopted a Declaration at the International Summit of Cooperatives last year, which includes a commitment on decent work,” said Mr Ozcan.

The international research conference on co-operatives and the world of work is organised by the ILO jointly with the International Co-operative Alliance, as a prelude to the Alliance’s Global Conference and General Assembly. Referring to co-operative and labour legislation, Mr Ozcan noted that the ILO’s labour standards included a recommendation on the Promotion of Cooperatives, 2002 (No. 193). The ILO’s co-operative legislative package also builds on Recommendation 193 and is intended to facilitate co-operative legislation reform that consists of co-operative values.

Another topic that will be discussed at the conference is the role of co-operatives in formalising the informal economy. On 12 June, 2015 the ILO adopted a new Recommendation (No. 204) on transition from the informal to the formal economy at its International Labour Conference. The recommendation on transition from informal to the formal economy has three references to co-operatives identifying them as key pathways for the transition by creating economies of scale, allowing for representation and collective voice, and providing for social solidarity in communities.

syria refugee
Co-ops can help with the 2.5m refugees from Syria and Iraq currently hosted by Turkey

Mr Ozcan also thinks that worker co-operatives have shown how to respond to crises, whether financial or caused by natural disasters and conflicts. He believes co-operatives have a role to play in improving the resilience of refugees. Turkey is currently hosting 2.5m refugees from Syria and Iraq, while thousands of people have lost their lives this year alone escaping war.

“These people need decent jobs and an income to build a better future for their families. These co-ops can help. I would like to encourage the conference to look into their potential contribution to secure better lives for refugees,” he said.

Innovation and sustainable development are also on the agenda at the research conference. According to Mr Ozcan, these are important topics for the ILO as well.

“In this context we are keen to gain a better understanding as to how co-operatives are faring in a changing world of work as generators of employment and income opportunities. In my opinion any discussion on co-operative advantage in a changing world of work has to focus on social and organisational innovation and their manifestations and will need to move beyond the role of technology and sectoral innovations [such as renewable energy or care co-operatives],” he said.

Co-operatives comprise the largest and strongest pillar of the social economy in Turkey, with a total membership of 8.1 million people, organised in more than 84,000 co-operatives, functioning in 25 different sectors.

“We believe, with their strong potential in creation of decent jobs particularly for women and a democratic management structure co-operatives can be an important player in the world of work. In this respect, their role in strengthening gender equality and empowerment of women is of crucial importance in Turkey.”

Mr Ozcan said he welcomed the special issue dedicated to co-operatives of the International Labour Review journal, which will be published in 2017. The ILO director general will be joining the G20 delegates in Antalya later this month for the G20 Summit. ILO’s director general and senior leadership will be welcoming the priority action areas identified at the conference, said Mr Ozcan. The Alliance and the ILO have also recently signed a new partnership agreement at the end of June this year that aims to contribute to sustainable development by promoting the role of co-operative enterprises in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. The collaboration will continue, confirmed Mr Ozcan.

Also a keynote speaker at the conference, Jurgen Schwettmann, former Director of the Department of Partnerships and Field Support, presented a paper on the potential role of co-operatives in the future of work. The title of the paper refers to an ILO Centenary Initiative launched under the title ‘The Future of’ Work’ by ILO Director-General Guy Ryder in the run-up to the organisation’s 100th anniversary, in 2019.

Mr Schwettmann, who has spent 27 years with the ILO in nine different roles before retiring in September 2015, pointed towards the main barriers to the future of work, including population growth, ageing, urbanisation, automation inequality or climate change. He argued that co-operatives could play a significant role in facilitating the transition towards a post-growth economy and society.

As climate change continues to impact, renewable energy co-ops can help create jobs
As climate change continues to impact, renewable energy co-ops can help create jobs

Demographic changes with population growth in some areas and decrease in others will determine labour migration, he argued. Another challenge will be population ageing, which could result in an increase in working hours and retirement age. Automation and technological development results in a loss of jobs, which brings new problems to the world of work. At the same time new jobs with be created in communication and IT.

Trade rate has grown faster than the world GDP, which means that more and more goods are being exchanged. “Globalisation has moved less sophisticated, low-paying jobs in manufacturing and services to developing countries while the so-called ‘industrialised’ countries slowly but steadily de-industrialise.”

The paper highlights that co-ops can respond to globalisation through social economy initiatives of local producers and consumers and fair trade. They can provide the framework for informal economy organisations and mutual assistance groups. Consumer and service co-operatives provide services for the urban population, responding to urbanisation. Health and social co-operatives can fill a gap in the provision of services for the elderly, said Mr Schwettmann.

Climate change is posing challenges but at the same time bringing new opportunities to create green jobs, with recycling and renewable energy co-operatives as agents of conversion to resource-neutral production. Responding to automation, co-ops support self-help group of redundant workers. With massive job losses in the service industry worker co-ops can be an alternative and so can internet-based collaborative platforms.

There are limitations to co-operative action, said Mr Schwettmann. They remain a small sector compared with mainstream businesses. “Co-operatives are not the only solution and may not always be the best solution.” They are also confined to national boundaries, he argued.

“We have among co-operatives a tendency of self-congratulation”. Co-operatives are not ‘better’ just because of their name or statute, he said. “They must prove their merits through tangible action,” added Mr Schwettmann.

He explained that the true power of co-operatives did not stem from their size or economic might, but from their distinct nature, characteristics, values, principles and governance structure. Rather than seeking recognition from the mainstream, the co-operative movement should focus on developing alternatives to the neo-liberal economic system, he argued.