The relationship between workers’ organizations and cooperatives explored at the World Cooperative Congress

Actualité | 16 décembre 2021
With the theme of “Deepening our Cooperative Identity”, the 33rd World Cooperative Congress was held in Seoul, the Republic of Korea from 1 to 3 December 2021.

The Deputy Director of ILO’s Workers Activities Department Ms Anna Biondi contributed to the parallel session of the Congress Living our cooperative identity with rewarding jobs on December 3, 2021.

Welcome remarks to the session were made by Osamu Nakano from Japan’s Worker’s Cooperative Union (JWCU). The four speakers at the panel included Mirai Chatterjee from SEWA Cooperative Federation in India, Anne-Laure Desgris from Smart Cooperative in Belgium, Youngmi Choi from Korea Domestic Worker’s Association(KDWA) in South Korea and Alireza Banaeifar from the Iranian Chamber of Cooperatives (ICC) in the Republic of Iran.

Before reflecting on the presentations of the panellists, Ms Biondi thanked the ICA for the ILO presence at the Congress, starting with DG Ryder. Recalling that since 1919 co-operators were recognized by the ILO as one of the established models for the world of work, she said that the cooperative model is finding renewed attention in contemporary times, especially as we are seeking to establish a “human-centred” perspective and action.

She also recalled that around the days of the 33rd World Cooperative Congress the 109th session International Labour Conference is in session debating “Skills” and “Inequalities”. She indicated these topics were reflected in the interventions of the speakers that preceded her intervention.
Reflecting on Ms Mirai Chatterjee’s presentation on the experience of SEWA, she emphasized that the experience of the union and cooperative model working together is especially relevant for an economy where 94 per cent of women in the informal economy. Even when discussing health cooperatives, she noted, the SEWA representative recognized that the best strategy is to link with public health programmes. This is an important point that cooperatives are not created and operating despite or against the public sector.

In reference to the experience of Smart Belgium, on organizing autonomous workers in a cooperative framework, she pointed out the fact that Belgium has strong social and labour legislation thanks to active engagement of trade unions and this is why the model is working. She cautioned against a push towards nonstandard forms of work.

She raised the point that the Korean example of the domestic workers association reflected upon the narrow cooperative law in Korea, with domestic workers unable to gain protection. It was noteworthy to hear that at the beginning of the formation of the association there was tension with workers’ organizations but the adoption of the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) was a vehicle for collaboration and stronger links.
She noted that the Iranian representative explained the situation in his country with regard to cooperatives with a specific focus on digitization related challenges.

Based on these examples, but above all referring to the values and principles outlined in the Cooperative identity of the ICA which are annexed to ILO’s Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193), she invited the Congress to elaborate on how they want to interact with the general discussion on the social and solidarity economy that will take place next year during the International Labour Conference and the outcome that they want to see.

In moving forward, she noted that it was important not to only talk about how great cooperatives are but to focus on the challenges as well. As the recommendation states and also as the experience shows, sometimes cooperatives are used in order to curb workers’ rights, installing pseudo cooperatives that deny the employment relationship.

She concluded by underlining that it is important to maintain solid alliances between bona fide workers organizations and cooperatives. In all cooperative activities, specific focus needs to be put on respect for core labour standards, in particular freedom of association and collective bargaining. The joint work between workers’ organizations and cooperatives can and should also lead to mutual support and assistance, push towards the elimination of precarious work, establish a model of local development with shorter supply chains and pay specific attention to job quality and workers’ and communities’ empowerment, she pointed out.

A summary of the session is available through here.