On 23 March 2020, the ILO organized a webinar to launch the Centenary of its Cooperatives Unit. This was the date when the decision for the establishment of the Unit, then called the Section of Co-operation, was adopted at the third session of the Governing Body (GB) as part of the first Director Albert Thomas’s proposal for the organization of the office.
In light of the situation around COVID-19 and according to the order of the Swiss authorities, the event was organized as a live webinar only. The event aimed at reflecting on the ILO’s role in the development of cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) across time and in the context of the changing world of work. Facilitated by the ILO Cooperatives Unit Manager, Ms Simel Esim , the webinar benefited from the contributions of the following five speakers:
Ms. Marieke Louis, Associate Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble
Mr. Jürgen Schwettmann , former ILO official and ILO Cooperatives Unit Chief from 2000 to 2006
Ms. Anna Biondi , Deputy Director, Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV), ILO
Mr. Ramin Behzad, Representative of Iran at the ILO in Geneva, Iranian Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare
Ms. Courtenay Cabot Venton, Independent Consultant and author of the ILO report on cooperative responses to forced displacements
More than 110 people from over 50 countries participated in the webinar. Ms. Esim started the webinar by referring to the words of Albert Thomas in his proposal for setting up a Section of Co-operation at the ILO: “The Peace Treaty requires that the International Labour Office should not only concern itself with conditions of work, but also with the condition of the workers. It is in the form of co-operation that this idea is best seen in popular circles.”
Following the introduction, Ms. Louis’s presentation focused on the historical links between the ILO and the cooperative movement. She explained why the attempts to include cooperatives as a fourth party in the structure of the ILO did not come to pass. She noted that the partnership between the ILO and the cooperative movement then shifted its focus from the political realm to more technical and practical activities. Her presentation is available here .
Speakers during the Webinar
Mr. Schwettmann reflected on the historical relevance of the cooperative model in the rural and informal economies, emphasizing the importance of the values of self-help, reciprocity and solidarity. He explained the trajectory of the ILO’s contribution to cooperative development since the 1920s particularly through development cooperation projects that flourished between the 1960s and the 1980s. He emphasized the importance of the ILO’s Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193) which has been used as a reference in close to 120 countries around the world in developing their cooperative policies and laws. In the context of a changing world of work, he elaborated on the potential role of cooperatives and the wider SSE to address people’s needs in the context of emerging trends such as technological innovation, demographic shifts and climate change.
Ms. Biondi presented on the historical collaboration between the ILO and the cooperative movement and on the challenges and opportunities for cooperative enterprises in advancing decent work for all. She highlighted the experience around the ILO’s SYNDICOOP project , a joint initiative by trade unions and cooperatives to organize workers in the informal economy in East Africa. She also expressed her hope for continued collaboration between the two movements in advancing decent work, including joint action on pseudo cooperatives that undermine workers’ rights against the cooperative values and principles.
Mr. Behzad started by highlighting the importance of cooperatives in economic and social development in Iran. He noted that cooperatives are included in the constitution and national development plans. He mentioned that the role of cooperatives and the wider SSE are noted in the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, 2019 . He pointed out to other recent international standards that include a reference to cooperatives, namely the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204) , the Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205) , and the Guidelines concerning Statistics of Cooperatives adopted at the 20th session of the International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 2018. He further elaborated on the process leading to the adoption of the guidelines, including the COPAC technical working group on statistics of cooperatives.
As a concrete example of cooperative response to the world of work challenges, Ms. Cabot Venton presented findings from a recently published ILO mapping study on responses by cooperatives and SSE organizations to forced displacement. According to the study, not only do they deliver practical services but they also foster social capacities and peacebuilding in communities. One of the key success factors is to respect democratic and participatory management structure of cooperative organizations and to focus on members’ needs and the cooperative values such as self-help, mutualism and solidarity. Her presentation is available here .
Mr. Vic Van Vuuren, Director of the ILO Enterprises Department, emphasized the need for the cooperative movement to play a greater role in tackling the current COVID-19 crisis, highlighting the recent ILO estimate that at least 25 million jobs would be lost in the coming months due to the crisis. “We are starting a new chapter for the coming hundred years. We need to go with the same vigour and conviction with those who started hundred years ago. Let’s learn from them and let’s move forward in a positive and creative way so that we can help those who will be burdened with the loss of jobs and wealth.”
A series of webinars highlighting the contributions of cooperatives and the wider SSE to decent work and to sustainable development will follow in the course of the ILO COOP centenary.