Co-ops and the SDGS: No.8, decent work

‘The global co-op movement needs to be more open and look at other organisations with whom it can build alliances’

We speak to Jürgen Schwettman, an independent consultant based in Germany specialised in co-operative development. He has spent 28 years at the International Labour Organization, holding different positions, including six years as chief of the co-op unit

At Kigali, you will take part in a panel on innovation in entrepreneurship through the co-op model. What should delegates expect from this session?

We will explore what co-ops could contribute to make the future of work more humane. Many people now are working independently and often in isolation, with no opportunity to exchange news with other colleagues. Workers need to form co-ops that bring them together, not necessarily physically, but virtually. For example, translators could build a network just to have a common brand, and use the co-op to market their services. 

At the same time, the traditional employer/ employee relationship being is replaced in many instances by a subcontracting relationship where the employee works for a short period of time on a specific contract, without much bargaining power. Workers need co-ops to defend their rights and
negotiate collectively.

You were one of the authors of the recent book on the future of work marking the ILO’s centenary. Can you tell us more about your chapter?

The chapter has three parts. The first looks at global challenges in terms of demographics, such as a growing and ageing population; technological trends, such as digitisation and automation; economic trends, including globalisation and the emergence of new economic powers in the global south; and environmental trends, such as climate change and resource depletion. The second looks at the impact of these trends on the world of work. The chapter portrays a changing world of work, not necessarily in a negative way, but in a way that suggests people have to be prepared. The third part examines how co-ops in developed or developing countries can take advantage of changes in the world of work, and counter negative effects.

How can co-ops contribute to the SDGs?

Co-ops can play an important role but it would be counter-productive to claim they are ideally placed to achieve all of the 17 SDGs and 169 targets. The point is to identify those SDG targets to which co-ops can contribute, specifically because they are co-ops, and because of their specific values. If you take that approach, the number of targets that are co-op-specific is much smaller – I identified 15 in a paper I worked on two years ago. By concentrating your effort on fewer targets, you become more visible. This is just a view.

Are co-ops ambitious enough with the SDGs?

They could take more initiative. When you go to co-op meetings, often we are speaking to ourselves and saying co-ops are the best form of enterprise. What we need to do is to critically analyse our movement and grow out of the comfort zone. It is not enough to say that 300 million people are working in co-ops because outside the co-op world most people don’t know about it.

How can co-ops bring in like-minded organisations?

The global co-op movement needs to be more open and look at other organisations with whom it can build alliances. Many co-op promoters are sceptical about the social and solidarity economy; I am of a different view. They have similar values and principles as co-ops. They might not be structured as co-ops but there is nothing wrong with that. There are common interests and goals. 

Right now, I am working on a paper on the informal economy in Africa; this is abound with associations, self-help groups, rotating savings and credit associations and other forms of collective action. Many of them operate on co-op principles without calling themselves “co-operative”… The formal, traditional co-op movement should be more open to bringing such associations on board and forming partnerships; much as trade unions are opening their doors to informal economy workers.

The co-operative movement should also explore avenues to reinvigorate its partnership with trade unions, both at global and national level. And why not also enter into a partnership with the employers’ organisations? After all, co-ops are also employers, and they are part of the private sector.