Q&A: Simel Esim

Chief of the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit (ILO Coop)

ILO Coop celebrated its centennial this year. How did you mark this important milestone?

Simel Esim: ILO’s Cooperatives Unit was established through a decision of the third session of the ILO’s Governing Body in March 1920, one year after the foundation of the organisation. The first Director of the ILO, Albert Thomas was key to the establishment of the unit. He thought that the ILO should not only concern itself with conditions of work, but also with the condition of the workers and it is in the form of co-operation that this idea can best be realised.

The centennial of ILO’s Cooperatives Unit came soon after the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, that was adopted in June 2019, called for promoting an enabling environment including for cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). It also came amidst a global Covid-19 pandemic outbreak that was a public health crisis that had far reaching social and economic implications.

Our original plans for the centennial of the Cooperatives Unit included a co-operative fair, a film festival along with a series of face to face meetings culminating in a big international symposium. With the global pandemic, we had to confine ourselves to holding a series of virtual events and activities including webinars, interviews, slide shows, online publications and finally an international symposium.

Webinars: We started the year by holding a series of webinars highlighting key areas of work on co-operatives and the wider SSE. The first of these webinars was the official launch of the centenary and took place on the birthday of the unit, 23 March. There were four other webinars on gender equality, climate action, forced displacement and SSE and the future of work.

Interviews: We launched an ILO COOP 100 Interview series which featured past and present ILO colleagues and partners who have engaged with the ILO’s work on cooperatives and the wider SSE. We conducted more than 30 interviews with cooperative practitioners, researchers, and leaders from around the world, where they reflected on their past and present experiences and thoughts on the future of cooperatives and the SSE in a changing world of work. From the UK we talked with Rebecca Harvey, Andrew Bibby, Stirling Smith and Edgar Parnell among others.

Slideshows: In March 2020, we launched a call for photos toward a series of ILO COOP 100 Photo Exhibitions to commemorate ILO COOP 100. The photos underwent a selection process. The submitted photos were turned into ten virtual photo exhibitions (on SDG 2, SDG 5 and SDG 8, care provision through cooperatives, three co-operative principles, and three regions). These are shared as slide shows through the ILO COOP webpage and social media channels. 

Bios of ILO COOP Chiefs: In order to pay our respects and gratitude to all those that came before us, we also featured bios of all the 12 chiefs of ILO COOP that were appointed by ILO Director Generals across the century. This starts with Georges Fauquet and Maurice Colombain to Thiecouta Sidibe and Adoum Maurice Hél-Bongo.

ILO COOP 100 video: To mark the occasion of ILO COOP 100, we worked with Blake House Filmmaking co-operative to produce a short video that marks the past, present and future of the engagement of the ILO with cooperatives and the wider SSE in advancing social justice and decent work.

Special Retrospective Issue of APCE: For more than a century now, research published in the Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, published on behalf of the International Centre of Research and Information on the Public, Social and  Cooperative Economy (CIRIEC), has been a key resource in promoting the work of co-operatives and wider SSE. ILO COOP and CIRIEC came together to bring about this special retrospective issue on “Cooperatives and the ILO over 100 Years: A selection of 12 Articles”, which was launched and celebrated during the ILO COOP 100 Symposium.

Articles in the ILR: As ILO COOP marks its centenary this year, the International Labour Review (ILR), a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal of international scope on labour and employment studies, is celebrating its centenary in 2021. Across the years, a number of articles on co-operatives were featured in the issues of the ILR. We featured these 30 articles on co-operatives that were published in the ILR between the 1920s and the 1980s on our website. Some of them reflect on conceptual issues around principles, definitions and classification of co-operative institutions, their legal and economic status, and relation to welfare of workers. Four were written by earlier ILO COOP chiefs, Georges Fauquet and Jean Orizet, who were visionary thinkers on co-operatives and the wider SSE.

International Symposium: To celebrate the 100th anniversary of its Cooperatives Unit (COOP), the ILO organised “Cooperating for Social Justice and Decent Work”, a two-day international symposium. Over a thousand people followed the symposium online. We have made the summary of the symposium, the programme, bios of the speakers and chairs, video messages, session specific write ups, presentations, and recordings of the two days in English, French, and Spanish available here.

How did ILO Coop help co-operatives cope with some of the challenges posed by Covid-19?

Simel Esim: The public health crisis around Covid-19 had severe social and economic implications on workers and businesses worldwide. Co-operatives and wider SSE enterprises were also affected with the dwindling economic activities and the growing social needs.

At ILO COOP we started by documenting experiences from partner organisations and cooperatives, including in India, Italy, and Republic of Korea during COVID-19. This was followed by an article where we highlighted the different sectoral responses of cooperatives and wider SSE organisations in agriculture, public utilities, retail, financial, social and other services. We summarised the highlights from this article in a blog that was featured by Co-op News.

In the framework of ongoing development cooperation projects, the ILO has included the impact of Covid-19 in co-operative needs assessments to better understand and address current and future needs. In Tunisia, direct financial and technical support is being provided to SSE organisations hit by the crisis.

In an attempt to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 in cooperative business operations, a section on how to prevent and protect from Covid-19 is being integrated in the practical occupational safety and health tool for agricultural cooperatives that is being developed in collaboration with the related departments in the ILO. We have also adapted some of our training tools, like Think.Coop, for online use when  face to face meetings are not possible due to pandemic-related restrictions.

Early on in the crisis, we were asked by ILO constituents and co-operative and SSE partners for resources on crisis response. We gathered the key ILO resources on the topic and made them accessible under a webpage. We have also prepared and sent a solidarity letter and video message to partner organisations around the world and prepared a longer and a shorter video, subtitled in English, French and Spanish, that highlighted co-operative and SSE responses to the global pandemic.

During ILO COOP 100 webinars, the speakers also reflected on their engagements with their members and wider communities on Covid-19 response. The UNTFSSE, as chaired by the ILO, has also created a repository page on SSE responses to Covid-19 gathering information from all its members, issued a statement and organised two webinars on SSE in the post Covid-19 crisis recovery, one in July 2020 and one in October 2020. In addition to highlighting Covid-19 related issues in our own webinars, we also took part in webinars of partner organisations, including those organized by Youth Deal Cooperative, Open Innovation Campus, and GSEF.

During the five ILO COOP 100 webinars, the speakers also reflected on their engagements with their members and wider communities on Covid-19 response. At ILO COOP, we continue to share ILO resources on Covid-19 with co-operative and SSE partners through our events, enews, and social media channels.

As the world of work becomes increasingly uncertain, particularly in light of Covid-19, how do you see the role of co-operatives in promoting social justice and advancing decent work?

Simel Esim: In the eyes of the public opinion, the role of co-operatives and other SSE institutions as social and economic actors has been increasingly recognised in light of Covid-19. Local governments also increasingly partner with co-operatives and wider SSE in outreach and emergency response, acknowledging the effectiveness of their existing infrastructure and networks.

In some countries, co-operatives and other SSE institutions are included in both consultation and implementation processes of government measures around the world of work issues. There are instances of governments establishing SSE funds in partnership with SSE actors to address social and economic needs although these are few and far in between. 

The unfolding economic and social crises around Covid-19 has shown the need to build a more resilient and diverse economy. For such a vision to be realized broad based alliances between co-operatives, and other SSE organisations is essential. These broad-based alliances can then jointly advocate for development of fairer and more inclusive social and economic policies, not just during the response and recovery around the Covid-19 crisis, but for the longer term in rebuilding a more sustainable future.

When the emergency phase of the public health crisis is over, societies and economies will need to be re-energised. In the medium to long term, the measures will need to look at preserving business and decent work. In supporting the reactivation and adaptation of enterprises to the new conditions after the virus is contained, it will be important to take into account, specific role that co-operatives and SSE enterprises can play in working toward a fairer and more inclusive economy that integrates values of mutuality, economic justice and organisational democracy.

Notably, in the case of bankruptcies, supporting worker-buy-outs of businesses through worker co-operatives will need to be a part of government measures for preserving jobs. In follow up to the strikes and worker walkouts in a number of platform economy businesses, co-operative alternatives could also be explored and supported by governments, including through enabling policies and institutions. Platform co-operatives constitute a proven model to organize independent work in such a way that physical contact can be avoided to save jobs.

What opportunities could 2021 bring to your work?

Simel Esim: In 2020, although most co-operatives and other SSE organisations may have struggled on the economic front, their relevance has been firmly established on the social front. At ILO COOP we plan to build on the growing momentum around the recognition of co-operatives and wider SSE in building resilience of local economies and mobilising communities with ILO constituents.

Our annual work plans at ILO COOP are based on consultations with field colleagues, and their feedback from their work with ILO constituents. An evaluation of the ILO’s work on the sustainable enterprises outcome area in the past five years showed that our constituents appreciate the work we do on co-operatives and wider SSE on the policy and practical tool levels and would like to understand better how they can engage more closely with this work. In 2021, we plan to invest in supporting ILO constituents’ understanding and engagement with this portfolio.

What are ILO COOP priorities for the year ahead?

Simel Esim: In the coming year, we will build on the momentum and energy generated from our activities around ILO COOP centennial. We also have a great deal of learning from the impact of the global pandemic. We will launch a number of tools, for instance on child labour, occupational safety and health and improving management of existing co-operatives.

We will continue following upon a number of policy and institution building initiatives in oPt, Tunisia, Tanzania, South Africa and Jordan. We will also continue supporting the delivery on co-operative components of ILO flagship initiatives on child labour, forced labour and forced displacement.

The March 2021 Governing Body of the ILO may also consider putting a general discussion item on co-operatives and wider SSE at the 2021 International Labour Conference (ILC). If agreed, this would be the first time SSE would be a topic of general discussion at an ILC. We will be following that space closely for any inputs and follow up action that may be needed from us by our constituents on that front.

This interview has been amended to reflect that ILO COOP has had 12 chiefs, not 11.