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work together The global information bulletin for cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises in industry, services and crafts April 2009 - Issue N° 1

SUMMA RY Editorial




Latin America




North America




The Cooperative Movement and the Economic Crisis, What Is the Way Out?

Editorial By Felice Scalvini, president of CECOP CICOPA-Europe What began as a financial crisis soon became an international

work together is a joint publication of CIC OPA and C ECOP Europe General coordination: Bruno Roelants Editors: Olivier Biron and Antonio Amato Graphics: jcse © CIC OPA 2009

economic crisis. When and how are we going to come out of it? Obviously nobody dares make a guess. However we must propose new ideas for the future. Although there is no definitive “solution,” it is necessary to understand what has happened, what has led us here, and see how to prevent mistakes without renouncing the process of global growth. Global development is still necessary if we want to eradicate

I nternational O rganis ation of I ndustrial, Artisanal and Service Producers ’ Cooperatives

European Confederation of Worker Cooperatives , Social Cooperatives and Social and Participative Enterprises

Contact: Avenue Milcamps 105 BE-1030 Brusells Phone: +(32) 2 543 10 33 Fax: +(32) 2 543 10 37

COOPSPACE: A new worldwide web system for entrepreneurial exchanges between cooperatives (page 3)

poverty and inequality once and for all from the face of the earth, and make it possible for our children to have a future with a wellbeing which is not too different from the one we have been enjoying over the past fifty years. (continued on next page)

Worker and social cooperatives are growing in Europe (page 9)

Worker cooperative organisations from South America meet and decide to build a process of integration among themselves (page 5)



The Cooperative Movement and the Economic Crisis, What Is the Way Out? (continued from page 1) Editoria l by Felice Sca lvini, president of CECOP C ICOPA-Europe What can we propose?

have dried up the resources from rules, and the future of local and

First of all, it is necessary to go back to developing enterprises that are structured differently

which they drew their suste-

global economy is at stake. We

nance, in the same way as monocultures drain away the

have to be ready for this new appointment with history.

lands on which they grow.

from capitalist ones, and to con-

How will we accomplish this?

tinue to develop a plurality of

First of all, by having excellent

entrepreneurial forms. It is necessary for the markets, including the financial ones, to go back to entrepreneurial diversity. We must develop cooperatives, mu tuals, consortia, social and nonprofit enterprises, with the same recognition and the same chances of development that forprofit enterprises receive.

“Now is the time to re-write the rules, and the future of local and global economy is at stake. We have to be ready for this new appointment with history. ”

enterprises, modelled on the cooperative principles and praxis. Secondly, by building ever stronger links (the process has already started, though much is still needed to be built) between cooperative sectors, in order to harmonise fully integrated areas of the cooperative economy. Thirdly, it is important to develop autonomous and original

Only a balanced plurality of actors with different economic goals and modalities can guarantee balanced development. Recent events have shown that the prevalence of enterprises that have chosen profit as their only creed and objective, and that are supported by a huge scientific and communication system,

ideas, free from any type of For cooperative enterprises, and

ideological slavery towards the

generally speaking for all the participative and social enter-

capitalist form of management

prises, a new season is opening

and economy. And, last but not least, we need to be proud of our

up: it will be a difficult one, but

roots, our history and our contri-

it will also be an extraordinary

bution, in the course of the last

and decisive one.

few centuries, to the economic, civil and moral growth of millions

Now is the time to re-write the

of people. ◊

INTERCONTINENTAL MERCOSUR cooperative delegation to Brussels attends CECOP seminar and signs protocol with CICOPA n October 2008, a delegation sent from REC M (Reunión Especializada de Cooperativas de Mercosur) made a visit in Brussels. , REC M is the MERC OSUR official agency for cooperatives which comprises the national administratio n of control and promotion of cooperatives and the national confederations of cooperatives in each MERC OSUR member state (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay). As C hile is an associate member of MERC OSUR, a delegate from the C hilean cooperative state administration was also part of the s tudy tour.


At this occasion, the delegation visited cooperative organisations in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Above all, they took part in a one-day interregional seminar organised by C EC OP on cooperative public policy and development, chaired by C EC OP vice president Manuel Mariscal. In the morning, inter-sectoral issues were debated with the presence of C ooperatives Europe copresident Etienne Pflimlin, and presenta tions were given from REC M, C ooperatives Europe, C OGEC A (agriculture) (continued on next page)



and EUROC OOP (consumers). The afternoon focused on

the promotion of cooperatives and of the World Declaration

our cooperative sector, with presentations from Brazil,

on Worker C ooperatives, etc. (the whole text of the C I-

Uruguay, Spain and the UK.

C OPA-REC M agreement is available on

The meeting closed with the signature of a multi-annual

On October 29th, the delegation was welcomed to Lille by

agreement between C ICOPA president Javier Salaberria

French member organisation C GSC OP vice president C hris-

and REC M president Paulo Roberto da Silva, ushering in a

tian Simon and communications director Pierre Liret to be

new era of cooperation between the two entities in the

acquainted with several local worker cooperatives

fields of transmission of experience, international develop-

(including a high-tech one founded by an Argentinean), the

ment initia tives, strengthening of na tional organisations of

regional union of worker cooperatives, and the SOC ODEN

worker cooperatives in MERC OSUR and the links among

financial instrument of the French worker cooperative

them, cooperativisation of enterprises in crisis, legislation,

movement. ◊

public policies, promotion of ILO Recommendation 193 on

COOPSPACE: a new worldwide Web system for entrepreneurial exchanges between cooperatives By Bruno Roelants, CICOPA


ntil now, it is only marginally that cooperatives involved in industry and services have been cooperating at the international level in the fields of common entre-

preneurial projects, exchange of information and skills, joint application to international tenders, etc. We are among many who now want to change that, and to help in that process. CECOP and CICOPA are collaborating with their Uruguayan webmaster JCSE in the design of a new website aimed to be an international instrument in the hands of the enterprises that are part of our European and world network. A French construction cooperative wishing to learn about an international public works tender in Germany may want to find construction cooperatives in Italy, Germany and Poland in order to establish a temporary consortium and apply for the tender. A new Polish cooperative established to manage a hospital could be interested in getting some technical and management know-how from one of the dozens of Italian cooperatives involved in hospital activities. A Spanish metal industry cooperative may have an interest in making a product in Brazil with a cooperative from Sao Paulo operating in the same sector. A Canadian cooperative in graphics could be interested to work together with an Argentinean consortium in the graphic industry. A Ro manian cooperative producing garments could be interested in working together with a Shanghaiese one. A Japanese tour operator cooperative could be willing to contact some of the many tourism cooperatives in Europe to organise tours to Europe. The possibilities are endless. Under globalisation, and in times of crisis, the need for many cooperatives to reach out to the international network of enterprises, which we represent, is on the agenda. COOPSPACE is meant to help them do that. The website is presently in construction and will be ready in May. It will be divided by sectors and sub-sectors according to the international ISIC/NACE classification system. On each sectoral page, the user will be able to see how many cooperatives in that sector or sub-sector exists within our enterprise network, and in which countries of the world. The user will also be able to restrict his/her search to a specific country or world region. He/she will be able to post an announcement or a request to cooperatives belonging to the corresponding sector in a specific country or group of countries. The website will be exclusively dedicated to CICOPA and CECOP’s direct or indirect members (cooperative confederation, federations, enterprises, support organisations etc). For more information, please write to or ◊



I.N.D.A.C.O internationalisation processes for cooperatives Interview of Simone Mattioli by Antonio Amato, CECOP INDAC O is an Italian second-tier cooperative stemming from the integration between a few cooperatives oriented towards the international market and other companies, and is within the framework of Legacoop system. INDAC O was born to encourage the internationalisation of the member cooperatives and to support their entrance into foreign markets. Through INDAC O, the member enterprises outsource their internationalisa tion work to a specific and specialized operative instrument, thus becoming more than an advisory service. Interview with its president, Simone Mattioli. How was INDACO born, and from which needs? INDAC O was born within the framework of Legacoop. During last few years the need emerged to promote processes of internationalisation for the small and medium Italian cooperatives. One of the main needs for cooperatives was a very cooperative instrument, able to support cooperatives, find partner countries, look for funding, and provide them dedicated services in their internationalisation process. How to combine the ‘cooperative values’ with the competitiveness of enterprises that do not have the same ‘approach’? We move from the assumption of promoting internationalisation processes for cooperative enterprises, but we also work with small and medium enterprises that are not cooperatives, such Simone Mattioli as the craft coops, (and they also have a different legal nature from cooperatives, President of INDACO at least in Italy), but they share the same operational objectives of expanding abroad. In some cases, we observe the development of economies of scale, between cooperatives and small and medium enterprises acting together and completing the production chain. What are the first projects being launched by INDACO? We have launched several projects simultaneously; the constitution of a Brazilian company active in housing made up of Italian and Brazilian cooperatives; a joint venture in Argentina involved in crystal production between an Italian and an Argentinean cooperative; another similar project in Argentina in shoe manufacturing, etc. Now we are preparing other projects; some of them are very large-scale. What difficulties and differences did you discover working in such different regions as Latin America and Africa? Latin America is our main region of operational activity. Throughout the years, we have built up valuable relations with cooperative organisations, entrepreneurial organisations and local governments in those countries. Argentina and Brazil are our “focal points”. In Africa and in Asia, we are following the requests of our members. For the moment our focus is in South Africa, C hina and in the United Arab Emirates, where we are looking for new opportunities. Which are the obstacles for the small and medium enterprises and cooperatives on the way of internationalisation? They have been the same for a long time. Some difficulties are structural, such as the limited availability of capital or the unavailability of relevant critical masses. Most of all, I found obstacles linked to cultural mistrust or prejudices around foreign enterprises or foreign markets. Some of these obstacles come from cooperative directors; they are still not used to sustaining inner human resources oriented to internationalisa tion. How do you feel about the current economic crisis, and what opportunities do you see (if there are any) for small and medium enterprises, for the cooperatives and for consortia such as INDACO? This is a serious crisis, because it is new in its identity. I think that is no t simply a crisis of the financial system, but rather a collapse of a development model; there is not one simple and clear solution for it. I think that this crisis is hiding opportunities that will be caught by new and innovative managerial dynamics. INDAC O is following it up because it sees itself as an instrument of change. We represent one of the necessary changes in this moment: sustainable access to global markets. In this sense, the cooperatives have understood that in the present economic uncertainty, their process of internationalisation cannot be delayed. What do you consider the role of international organisations such as CECOP and CICOPA to be? C EC OP and C IC OPA are really important. They are carrying out a fundamental role for the development of worker cooperation, sustaining it in the represented countries and acting as a network in the global area. In this sense these two organisations help and sustain the processes of internationalisation. Which are the future projects of I.N.D.A.C.O.? The first project is the fulfilment of our purposes: to significantly promote the processes of internationalisation for the cooperatives. We started well and we are growing up. There is a lot of attention around us and we do not want to disappoint those who decide to join I NDAC O. We have several plans for the future, from the enlargement of the action areas, to the improvement of our “focal point” all around the world: today we are active in Argentina, Brazil, and Bosnia, but we are building conditions to be operational also in South Africa, India and C hina. ◊

More information about INDACO at





Worker cooperative organisations from South America meet and decide to build a process of integration among themselves By CICOPA The 3 Brazilian members of CICOPA, C ootrabalho, Anteag, and Unisol, organised a C ICOPA regional seminar on January 5-6 in Sao Paulo, with the presence of representatives from the federations of worker cooperatives from Uruguay (FCPU), Argentina (FECOOTRA and FACTA) and Colombia (ASCOOP), as well as CIC OPA general secretary Bruno Roelants. Fábio Sanchez, Deputy Secretary of State for the Solidarity Economy under the Brazilian Ministry of Labour, also attended part of the seminar. The first half of the meeting was aimed at examining the regulatory situation concerning worker cooperatives in the four countries represented, and in the rest of the world. The participants reviewed the brand new cooperative laws from Uruguay and C olombia, and co-signed a formal call addressed to the Brazilian senate to approve the draft worker cooperative legislation already approved by the Brazilian parliament. It also appeared that in Argentina, the situation may finally be ripe to prepare a worker cooperative law. During the second half, the representatives agreed to launch a process of integration among themselves within the framework of CICOPA, and to elaborate an agenda over the next few months in this respect.

In the common periodical of the federations of worker cooperatives of Argentina, FECOOTRA comments the following about the meeting: “In the end, we have to admit that there is still a huge amount of work to be done in order to build a common politico-institutional presence in Latin America, develop projects of integration between our enterprises, and to keep firm the commitment to not let any of the enterprises which the entrepreneurs want to lead to bankruptcy fall. …Only by uniting and working together shall we be able to win the battle, and it is precisely within the framework of CICOPA that we should meet our colleagues from South America, and from all over the world, in order to succeed in our efforts to strengthen worker ownership” (Autogestión Argentina, n° 3, March 2009). ◊

Argentina: With the crisis, the enterprise take-overs are back Summary and excerpts of an article by Pablo Waisberg in Buenos Aires Económico, 2 March 2009 aving learned their lessons from the crisis of 2001, many of the workers in the city of Buenos Aires are in the process of taking over their plants before they close, and want the help of the State to start producing again.

of companies in the city with production problems or where the owners have abandoned the plants altogether. “The almost immediate response is the occupation of the buildings in order to prevent malfunctions with the machines - without the machines it would be impossible to restart production. This The companies that have been taken over by their workers are ability for rapid response is what differentiates these workers only a few in Buenos Aires but they represent important secfrom those who, in 2001, guaranteed the survival of more tors, such as food, textile, paper and graphics. They employ a than two hundred establishments. But what is at stake today thousand workers. Managers are putting the blame on the is the rescue of companies that have not run bankrupt yet. international crisis, but in many cases a lingering disinvestThey are companies that still have an owner and in which no ment process can be observed, which some people define as open judicial process has started as yet”, Waisberg explains. “emptying.” In 2009, we have observed at least seven cases (continued on next page)




José Orbaiceta, president of the Federation of Worker Cooperatives of the Argentine Republic (FECOOTRA), believes that the process will deepen: “it will worsen, at least in some sectors that are linked to the crisis, such as spare parts for the automobile industry.” One example is the closing down of the Eagle Ottawa tannery, a Canadian multinational, leaving 450 people without work. Orbaiceta thinks that the speed with which those processes are taking place has a direct relationship with the fact that “it is now clear that the workers can revive companies and put them back to work.” Furthermore, Orbaiceta stated that “some prejudices have fallen” in the trade unions, which are now supporting those experiences. “This is what happens with the Buenos Aires Graphic Federation and the unions of the interior who are also mobilizing”.

There is another case which is even more serious. It is Wyny tannery, purchased by Mexican capitals from Argentinean managers. “They bought it to raise the quality of the manufactures and be able to export them as half-finished products, without paying taxes on leather. It is a case of extractive investment”, explained Raúl Zylbersztein, who in charge of the Industrial Chamber of the Leather Manufactures. The decision of the Mexicans - as Delgadillo specifies - was to move the plant and pay 50% in compensation. But according to Degadillo, “the take-over of the plant and a few meetings at the Ministry of Labour convinced them to pay 80% in compensation. Now the factory continues to be occupied by its 250 employees and the trade union is trying to ensure continuity in production. A possibility is to establish a cooperative.”

The request of State backing of the cooperatives appears in each taken-over company, Pablo Waisberg then indiincluding those in which the cates that Orbaiceta: “also process of recovery has forms part of the Graphic arisen over the last two Network, which integrates months. The workers of Inthe work of seven cooperadugraf and those of Arrufat The workers of the Arrufat chocolate company tives of the same sector. For requested it, and in fact, the three years now, they have Arrufat workers openly announced last week that they would been working in a network and have ceased to compete with begin to produce handmade chocolates. They want to show each other, abandoning the feverish struggle for clients and that what they want is to work. But they need money to buy carrying out combined purchases. The result is striking: they at least 5,000 kilos of chocolate to begin to produce Easter have improved their technological levels, obtained better oreggs, the products that together with the nougats built the ders and increased their turnover.” fame of the brand name. Continuing with the interview to Orbaiceta, Waisberg writes The workers of (…) Arrufat are already producing. Today, they that “when evaluating the role of the State and its relationship the chocolates are being made by hand, and the workers are with the worker cooperatives, be they the traditional ones or preparing to do it mechanically once again in the future. For the taken-over ones, Orbaiceta considers that the Government that purpose, they printed vouchers of sales of Easter eggs should give them the same backing as what the companies one of their emblematic products – in order to have access to with capitalist owners get. There are cases like Acindar and other big companies that enjoy State support to overcome the working capital. The vouchers for five or ten eggs will begin to be sold this week to members of other taken over enterprises crisis and many cooperatives that perhaps make logistical or and cooperatives. other services for that company have been able to benefit from those aid programmes. When Government aid arrives they can survive, while other suppliers of big industries have not been given this kind of support and have entered into crisis.” The article continues with other examples of enterprises being revived. “The case of Massuh seems to be the most complex one. In the middle, there is a Canadian financial fund and society, Papelera (paper mill) Alem, which has taken over the factory but has not reported itself to the authorities yet. It should do it this on Wednesday to the Ministry of Labour. This week’s meeting was preceded by another one between the workers of the paper mill and officials”.

Along with the vouchers, they have planned other activities in order to gather the necessary capital. One such plan is a festival that will take place on Saturday, March 14. In the meanwhile, they are continuing to sell fruit chocolates they have prepared with a few neighbours that came to offer them their support. “The machines work, they work perfectly well, and we want to continue working. We only lack the working capital to be able to buy raw material”, Adrián Serrando said last week, during a press conference at the door of the factory. They announced that they were resuming production and that they were establishing a cooperative. ◊

The Federation of Worker Cooperatives of the Argentinean Republic – FECOOT RA - has become a new CICOPA mem ber FECOOTRA presently affiliates 29 worker cooperatives employing 2500 workers and are involved in various types of economic activities, such as paper, printing and graphics, ship repair, textiles, chemical industry, crystal, meat refrigeration, etc. One year ago, FECOOTRA established a union with other worker cooperative federations existing in Argentina, which launched a periodical called ‘Autogestion Argentina’ (Argentinean Self-Management). ◊



EUROPE CECOP works with the European Commission on social inclusion policies By Bruno Roelants, CECOP CECOP CICOPA Europe is involved in a three-year tive, we help save existing jobs, and we are project with DG Employ ment and Social Affairs of thereby doing prevention of social exclusion of the European Commission, to work on the issue persons at risk. of EU social policies, particularly in social inclusion. Through the project, CECOP has been selected as one of the key EU networks working on this topic.

Generally, the core mandate of a worker cooperative is to create and maintain quality and

Obviously, CECOP’s contribution to this common work is related to the specificities of the enter-

long-term jobs, not precarious jobs that are at risk to be lost. Furthermore, worker cooperatives create and maintain jobs in which the workers are the co-owners of their enterprises. The nu-

prises of our network, namely worker cooperatives, social cooperatives and other workerowned enterprises, and is mainly to be seen in terms of concrete entrepreneurial experience of

merous support institutions of our system (federations, financial instruments, training centres, advisory services, groups, consortia, etc) are aimed to make those enterprises and those

active inclusion through work. For example, thousands of social cooperatives across Europe are involved in the labour inclusion of people who suffer from a whole series of disadvantages lead-

jobs even more sustainable economically, and more resilient in times of crisis like the present one (even though the crisis is striking our enterprises as well). None of our jobs delocalise, and

ing to social exclusion, that can be physical or mental (disabled persons) or social (long-term unemployed, drug addicts, ex-convicts, immigrants etc): they do not only offer them a job,

we lose comparatively few jobs, while we create new ones continuously. We have a key employment model to promote at the European level.

but they offer to the majority of those disadvantaged persons the status of co-owner of the enterprise.

We are trying to present this project to the European Commission, and to our own enterprise net-

work, to show that we are strongly involved in social inclusion and territorial cohesion, two comAnother key contribution to the social inclusion plementary and mainstream policies of the Euroagenda is to show to what extent we are involved pean Union, and that we have something fundain the prevention of social exclusion. When we mental to offer in the definition and in the implehelp transform an enterprise which is on the mentation of those policies. brink of closure into a successful worker coopera-

European Parliament supports business transfer to employees Par Diana Dovgan, CECOP for cooperatives and other social pean Parliament adopted a economy enterprises. resolution on social economy Among other demands expressed to (cooperatives, mutuals, associathe European Commission and tions, foundations) with 580 votes in Member States, the report called for favour, 27 against and 44 abstenthe support to facilitate the transfortions. mation of enterprises into workerThe own-initiative report drafted by owned undertakings in the case of Italian MEP Patrizia Toia (from the business crisis’. CECOP welcomes ALDE political group) is an importhis reference to business transfer tant act of recognition and support to employees after a five-year long


On February 19th, the Euro-

“silence” from the European commission on this topic. The 2004 Communication on the Promotion of Cooperative Societies in Europe is the last of the series of Commission documents which, since 1994, had consistently hailed business transfer to employees as an important and viable modality of enterprise restructuring. (continued on next page)



Nevertheless, this “silence” does not mean that business transfers to em-

eminently cyclical economies” and

ployees have stopped or even decreased since 2004: in France alone, there were 70 cases in 2007. In fact, among enterprises from the

even emphasises that “an economic system in which social economy enter-

CECOP network, the opposite is

prises play a more significant role would reduce exposure to speculation

“social economy helps rectify three major labour market imbalances: unemployment, job instability and the social and labour exclusion of the unemployed” true. This model of enterprise restructuring deserves even more attention right now in the context of massive closings and job losses. The Toia report recognises the ability of social economy enterprises to “generate stability in a context of

in financial markets on which some private companies are not subject to the supervision of shareholders and regulatory bodies”.

The Italian MEP Patrizia Toia

In a more general sense, the report expresses the need for a secure legal framework for those enterprises. It considers the social economy as a key operator for fulfilling the Lisbon objectives: “social economy helps rectify three major labour market imbalances: unemployment, job

instability and the social and labour exclusion of the unemployed” and create jobs that are not subject to delocalization. This observation is particularly relevant for worker and social cooperatives and other worker-owned enterprises, who have the creation of sustainable jobs as part of their core mission. ◊

European Commission conference on social enterprises in Brussels ending with conclusions and proposals by CECOP By Bruno Roelants, CECOP ECOP’s active participation to this conference (Brussels, 6th March) is linked to the fact that the term ‘social enterprises’ in Europe, in spite of the many local differences, usually refers to not-for-profit private enterprises whose mission is the production of goods or services of general interest (such as social services or the integration through work of disadvantaged persons). The CECOP enterprise network comprises by far the biggest contingent of such enterprises, with around 9000 social cooperatives across Europe, as CECOP president Felice Scalvini reminded in his conclusions.


The participants included government officials (such as from the UK), representatives from federations (including several CECOP national members) and enterprises, as well as from research institutions such as EMES, CIRIEC, and the new Trento-based European Research Institute on Cooperatives and Social Enterprises (EURICSE). During a substantial part of the conference, many participants expressed very strong criticism concerning the report on social enterprises commissioned by the European Commission and finalised in 2007, high-

lighting its numerous mistakes and its low scientific level. Bob Cannell from Cooperatives UK highlighted the very diverse types of social enterprises in the UK, ranging from real community and participatory enterprises to all but conventional private enterprises, and the incoherence of the UK government policies towards them. In his conclusions, Felice Scalvini said that social enterprises needed a clear definition. They should thus be regulated at the national level, and there should be increased convergence between the various existing and future national legislations regulating them. He proposed that European Commission’s DG Enterprise launch an action in this sense under the Open Method of Coordination (OMC). He also said, while a convergent legal framework is gradually sought, the needs of those enterprises should be better taken into consideration in existing EU policies, such as on public procurement and services of general interest, and in the EU programmes stimulating entrepreneurial development. ◊


Public procurements directive: need for clarification regarding article 19 By Guy Boucquiaux , CECOP C ECOP seminar on public procurement, held in Brussels on December 17th, stressed the need to clarify the meaning of article 19 of the Public Procurement Directive (2004/18/EC ). A representative of the European Commission, DG Internal Market, was present at the seminar. This article states that “the Member States may reserve the right to participate in public contract award procedures to sheltered workshops or provide for such contracts to be performed in the context of sheltered employment programmes where most of the employees concerned are handicapped persons.” The notion of “sheltered workshops” has disappeared from practically all national legislations and has not been defined at the EU level. DG Internal Market has told us that it should be interpreted


out amongst C ECOP members show that, in order to gain recognition as a “sheltered workshop” in Rumania, Finland and Italy, only 30% of the employees must be handicapped persons. “according to the spirit rather than the It should also be added that the Italian letter” of the term. However, it is diffilegislation deals with “disadvantaged cult to do so when the “letter” can mean persons”, such as former prisoners, for many different things. example, a concept which is far wider than disabled persons. Another problem is that this article refers to both “sheltered workshops” and C ECOP is paying particular attention to “sheltered employment programmes” at the article 19 of the 2004 Public Prothe same time and goes on to say that curements Directive, first of all because it is a requirement that the majority of it concerns cooperatives since it talks the workers concerned (in other words about “sheltered workshops” and more than 50%) must be handicapped “sheltered employment programmes”, persons in both cases. but also because the clumsy wording of this article makes it almost impossible Although this threshold of 50% is well to apply. established by all European texts that refer to sheltered employment – and In turn, C ECOP has already proposed an there is no dispute over this – this interpretation of “sheltered workshops” threshold has never been set out as a with 3 key criteria: a) be full-fledged requirement in all of the national legisenterprises b) where the disabled are lations on sheltered workshops and full-fledged workers and c) whose core similar schemes. mission is to do social inclusion of disabled and disadvantaged people Indeed, the results of a survey carried through work. ◊

Worker and social cooperatives are growing in Europe By Antonio Amato, CECOP orker and social cooperatives, involved in various industries and services, are growing healthily all around Europe. This encouraging observation comes from the analysis of the first results of a CECOP survey which, among other data, surveys the trends in the creation of new cooperative enterprises over the last five years. The growth rates take into account the new cooperative enterprises created ex novo and the ones coming from a process of transformation or buy out of enterprises of another nature.


This is the case of France where CGSCOP (French confederation of worker cooperatives) reports that the 30% of the 1900 affiliated cooperatives have been created over the last five years, and one-third of them come fro m a transformation process. Positive data come also from Spain where the 30% of the existing 18 000 cooperatives, represented by COCETA (Spanish confederation of worker cooperatives), were constituted in the last five years. In the UK there has been a registration of about a hundred new cooperatives constituted by start up and this has increased the total amount of existing cooperatives by 30%. Central and Eastern European countries are registering similar developments, as the case of the Czech Republic where the 10% of the 200 cooperatives affiliated to SCMVD have been created over the last five years. This consideration is very important in a country such as the Czech Republic where a process of erosion has affected the cooperative enterprises over the last fifteen years (which also includes other enterprises). This process of erosion has not stopped but it is gradually diminishing its effects. In Italy, Federsolidarietà (sectoral organisation of Confcooperative, representing social cooperatives) has registered a growth of 42% of new affiliated cooperatives over the same period, to reach 4893 enterprises at the end of 2008. These data corroborates the conviction that the worker and social cooperative movement is a strong and sustainable system where enterprises, solidarity, equity and development can be sustained and enforced. ◊


Interview with Carlo Zini, president of ANCPL/Legacoop Europeanisation of construction and industrial cooperatives – The crisis Regulation of concessions – Europe and its citizens ByV alerio Pellirossi, CECOP n 2007 the European Commission launched a proposal for a directive which could regulate concessions, particularly in the field of management and maintenance of motorways and highways. In the consultation with the member States that followed at the end of the same year, highlighted contrasting opinions on the topic. Member States’ reaction blocked the continuation of the works on the directive, which, in fact, was never approved.


A European regulation of the sector, like in other sectors, may be a tool to create more opportunities for those enterprises able to take up the challenge of a wider marketplace. An important part of the enterprises which could benefit from the approval of a directive on concessions and the European regulation of the sector are worker cooperatives working in the construction industry. Dr. Carlo Zini, recently elected president of ANC PL, one of the Italian Federations of worker cooperatives of the sector, is the president of C MB, Cooperativa Muratori e Braccianti, a worker cooperative in the construction field, with 1000 members and 900 employees and a turnover about 400 million €. Dr. Zini, what are the possibilities for the Cooperatives and Consortia to access to concessions for the management and maintenance of highways and motorways in Italy? With the legislation that we have today, some big cooperatives in the field of construction have the possibility to be holder of a concession.

One example is by providing common definitions and clarifying the role of the actors, such as concessionaire, administrator and contractor. What is the level of europeanisation and internationalisation of the cooperatives? In the industrial sector in general, the market is rather well developed at the European and world level. Most of our member cooperatives of our organisation consider the European market as a domestic market and, at the same time, the level of internationalisation is already high in sectors like engineering, ceramic and consultancy. Nevertheless, in those sectors, just a few cooperatives among the larger ones are well-positioned on the international markets. The opportunity to have access to foreign markets implies, especially in the European Union, the freedom for foreign enterprises to access domestic markets. Is the widening and europeanisation of the market seen as an opportunity or a critical challenge for Cooperatives? I certainly see new opportunities. We should wish a wider market where the enterprises could meet a bigger supply, ensured by the freedom of a plurality of actors to decide their position in the competition market. We have recently experienced a large protest against a foreign contractor enterprise that employs foreign workers instead of domestic workers. The protests were mainly the consequence of the raising unemployment rate in Europe. Do you think that the current economic crisis could negatively affect the opening process of the European market, and the freedom of movement and establishment of workers and enterprises? I am sure that there will be repercussions. We have to consider that an economic recession results in the reduction of industrial production, a decrease of the domestic demand, and the export to foreign markets.

And what are the problems emerging from the failure of the project for a European regulation of the sector, in particular concerning the cooperatives? It is clear that the lack of a common legislation lead to the strengthening of a non-homogeneous market in Europe. In Italy for example, as a consequence of this lack of legislation, it has approved an act in favour of in-house concessions (the possibility for public institution to utilise its own bodThe Italian cooperatives of our organiies, or public-owned entities instead of sation, ANC PL, have the objective of contracting out, ed.) with the consegrowth in their dimension, the enquent contraction of the market. hancement of the management and the What are the benefits of regulation valorisation and improvement of the of the sector at the European level? skills of the workers. In order to

Carlo Zini President of ANCPL-Legacoop

achieve these objectives, they will open to new market horizons, broaden their activities and launch new products. This strategy will be supported by investments in research and the technological innovation. It is not possible to deny the fact that European Institutions can deeply influence the everyday activity of the cooperatives, as well as the life of the European citizens. However, citizens and the civil society in general still feel distant from the European Union and are distrustful of the European Policies. What do you think the EU can make in the future, in order to improve the relationship with its citizens? The awareness of the European citizens of the importance of the European project is still weak. The enhancement should start from the improvement of the quantity and the quality of the information on European Institutions and EU issues, as well as the involvement of the citizens and the civil society in the public debate and decision making process. The active participation of the citizens in the EU life and the permanent dialogue can be the solution to this problem. We completely share a vision of the future for the European Union based the dialogue and active participation of the citizens. ◊



Being reborn with extra strength. Company buy-outs in Spain By Olga Ruiz, Virginia del Peso, Mar Pernas, David de la Puente, Ana Real, Pilar Villaverde y Mariana Vilnitzky, COCETA There are many stories that have remained hidden in the history of Spain. Among them are the bankrupt companies that have been restructured by their workers and transformed into cooperatives. Although little is known of them, they are very profitable companies that went through very hard times. The current crisis has taken these stories out of the drawer of oblivion. At the end of 2007, the workers of the Aragonese company Low Power, which is dedicated to metallurgy, began to notice that something was going wrong. T he usual suppliers created difficulties in the delivery of the orders, and it was only in January this year that they could pay last year’s wages. Far from giving explanations, the manager denied that there was any problem, but at the end of March, Lo w Power closed, leaving all their workers without job, debts in the millions , and, most surprisingly, orders that could not be carried out. After several conflicts, the workers formed a cooperative: Metalva. Now they are tracing back their clients and are continuing their metallurgical activity. In order to get trained, they counted on, among other thing, their collaboration of some suppliers. Does this ring a bell to anybody? This is a well-known type of story from the 1970s and 1980s, which the protagonists themselves had forgotten to tell. “What is so special about us? I don’t know, maybe it is that we invoice about three million Euros per year?” says Casto Duque Ramírez, who belongs to the metallurgical cooperative C osemap in Metalva Cooperative C astilla la Mancha, when asked what was so special about her company. Then, he thinks it over and hesitates a little while. As if he was recalling that in the past he fed himself on potatoes, he adds: “Of course, this company was not a cooperative at the beginning. We were the workers of a Basque company which, one day in 1982, decided to close down and leave us without a job and even without compensations. We did everything we could to continue with the company: demonstrations, lock-ins, hunger strikes... Everything so tha t they would pay us. And, at the end, after many fights, we go t the right to keep the machinery and the client list.” I t was a time of deep economic crisis, convulsed by the transition to democracy. This story that Duque tells almost by chance, and along with the history of Metalva, also shares the history of many cooperative companies who have been in activity for some time: C iatco, Olea Metal, Pannosco, Sherlimp, Mol-Matric … They have never been properly told, but those who lived those years from the Justice system remember them as a mountain of files. The trade union “C omisiones Obreras” ended up creating a dedicated section exclusively to the transition of the means of production.

“An expert calculated the value of what was left: sewing machines, printers... and sometimes that was part of the compensations”

“I spent every morning between the Labour court, today called Social Tribunals, and the Institute of Mediation, Arbitration and Reconciliatio n”, a labour lawyer remembers. “There were demonstrations almost every day in Orense Street in Madrid. Some owners abandoned the factories without paying compensations or social security. Thus, in order to pay the workers, it was even necessary to value the assets, if they existed. An expert calculated the value of what was left: sewing machines, printers... and sometimes tha t was part of the compensations”, she explains.

Mol-Ma tric is a company that was born in similar circumstances to those of C osemap. It began its story in the 1970s with muc h optimism but not without problems. The cooperative members did not have the slightest no tion of enterprise management, which resulted in the leadership positions being dis tributed to function with the aptitudes of each person. The person in charge of production was an employee that distinguished himself by being orderly and methodical; and the present director that entered the company as a cleaner, took charge of computerization 15 years ago, because of his keen interest in computers. Today it is a very profitable company. In order to make it possible for cooperatives such as Mol-Matric or C osemap to start producing, the Government of that time established the Na tional Fund for the Protection of Work, granting soft credits for members who wanted to set up a cooperative and a special credit line to hire a manager for one year. “It was a crisis, like now, related with petroleum”, remembers Rafael Calvo Ortega, former minister of labour in 1978, and creator of the measure and today president of the Ibero-American Foundation for the Social Economy (Fundibes), “…it was a very correct measure because the degree of survival of those enterprises, cooperatives and worker-owned societies, was much higher that o ther types. The employees, being also owners, were more involved”. (continued on next page)

12 WORK TOGETHER - ISSUE N° 1 - APRIL 2009 The carpet cooperative Sherlimp, established by 42 workers who purchased the company from the owner, used the option of hiring a manager. “Many people, including the Ministry of Labour, thought the cooperative would barely survive two months”, explains Marco Antonio Canelo, director of Sherlimp. “They completely forgot the human capital. With solidarity and companionship we have gone through 30 years of existence and we have 30,000 clients, which is not negligiModern times ble.” Today, the situation is com ple te ly diffe re nt Not all stories are a struggle between the workers and the employer. Some company owners could simply not pay and they decided, in a good way, to leave the factory to the workers as a payment in kind. Cartonajes Aitana, a company of the Valencian Community which also went bankrupt in the 1970s, not only became profitable when it was acquired by its workers, but the same workers even decided to accept the children of the ex-owners as members. In order to move ahead, the members initially worked “day and night like ants.” Today they carry out an activity which is deeply rooted in their district. Another company with a similar experience, also in the Valencian Community, is the one of the Manclús family, dedicated to the repair of church steeples, whose owners decided to close down and relaunch as a cooperative. “When you leave a situation in which there have been conflicts, there is a certain mistrust among the parties involved, and the best way to clarify everything and to make everybody participate in the new project was to establish a cooperative”, Salvador Manclús, one of the founders, explains. Not all the companies requested State aid. At that time already, what was then known as “inter-cooperation” worked well. The Galician cooperative bakery Noroeste, that came out of a process of business transfer from the company Paefsa, acquired the factory with the effort of 35 workers and a mortgage linked to the old company which was difficult to pay. In order to make it, they got the backing of another cooperative, Meirás, today a consumers’ cooperative, and they became a very well-known bakery in the district of Ferrolterra, where they are located. In 1984, Spain approved a new law, which is still effective, that allows people that become unemployed to receive their unemployment benefit in a lump sum to create a cooperative. Hundred of cooperatives have been created from then on thanks to this law. ◊

from that of those years: Spain has be come a rich country, and it is far more shaped inte lle ctually and politically; howe ve r, we are again hearing the word “crisis.” Unemployme nt incre ase d in May for the first time since 1979, and some companies are closing down. Stories like those of 30 years ago are again appearing. Apart from Me talva, the re are smalle r companie s that are closing, and, finding themse lves unem ployed, the worke rs take advantage of the fact that the y can re ce ive the whole unem ployment be ne fit in a lump sum to start the coope rative . It is the case of Talle r Salamandra, in the mountains near Madrid. “After 15 years working in a handi craft factory, our bosses found out that by importing Asian products they woul d earn much more money”, one of the ir membe rs te lls. The Talle r Salam andra has now bee n open for two years, the y have opene d a shop and the y are going ahead without problems. “There is a tendency to link the social economy with the crisis, and that is an idea that we should reject”, the forme r ministe r and instigator of the measures that 30 years ago he lped those types of business transfe rs, R afae l Calvo O rtega, points out. “They are companies that go ahead whe n there is crisis, and they can better ove rcome the difficulties, but that does not mean that they are linked to crisis situations. They are good options in other times because a person who a worker, is also an owne r of the company, and thus takes decisions it is more responsible”, he concludes.

An article taken from “Empresa y Tr abajo” (

National workshops in Italy , France, and Spain on workers’ involvement in worker cooperatives and other worker-owned enterprises By Bruno Roelants, CECOP Those workshops were run within the framework of a EU project on the European Cooperative Society and workers’ involvement, which is coordinated by Italian confederation Legacoop with the help of the Diesis cooperative. In each of the workshops (Paris - 18 March, Murcia - 2 April, Rome - 8 April), national CECOP member organisations and trade union confederations, together with CECOP, discussed the issue of worker participation in worker cooperatives, social cooperatives and other worker-owned enterprises. One of the main aims of these workshops is to popularize the results of the Involve project implemented in 2007 between CECOP and ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) with the help of Diesis, and in particular: the common CECOP-ETUC conclusions on worker participation in CECOP’s constituency of enterprises, including future European cooperative societies; the analysis of the relation between workers that are cooperative members and those that are not, and of the different types of non-members; a survey of concrete practices of worker participation in individual cooperative enterprises (for more information on the Involve project, please go to: ◊



European Conference on the participation of workers in social cooperatives, Krakow, Poland, 23-24 March By Joanna Brzozowka (NAUWC) and Bruno Roelants (CECOP) his was the main conference of an ongoing EU co-financed project called ‘Social cooperatives East and West’ led by CECOP Polish member NAUWC with the help of the Diesis cooperative, and participated by CECOP members in the Czech republic, Bulgaria and Italy, by Italian social cooperative consortium CGM, by an Italian trade union research institute and by CECOP itself. Like for the above-mentioned national workshops in Italy, France and Spain, one of the main aims of this meeting was to popularize the results of the Involve project (see above and article.php?id_article=798). Another chief aim was to present best practices and share experiences in area of information, consultation and participation of worker’s in co-operative enterprises, especially social cooperatives. The specific situation of Polish and Italian social cooperatives in terms of worker participation and relations with the trade unions was examined in detail. Several concrete examples of Polish and Italian social cooperatives (including among Rom people, disabled and immigrants) were presented. The participants also visited a series of social cooperatives in Cracow. ◊


Czech Republic: International Conference on Social Economy and Social Entrepreneurship, Prague By Lucie Brančíková, Union of Czech Production Co-operatives (SCMVD)

n International European Conference on Social Economy and Social Enterprise

A will take place from 16th to 18th April 2009, in Prague as part of the official programme of events under the Czech Republic's Presidency of the EU Council. The organisers of the conference are the Union of Czech Production Co-operatives (CECOP Czech member organisation), the Co-operative Association of the Czech Republic, the Confederation of Employers and Entrepreneurs' Associations of the Czech Republic, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of the Czech Republic. The event is held under the aegis of European Commissioner Vladimír Špidla and the Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. The conference will certainly reflect the concerns of social economy actors, institutions and organisations at the national and European levels over the impact of the current economic crisis on the development of the social economy in EU member states. Further information about the conference programme, workshops and the registration procedure is available at ◊

Worker Co-operatives on Facebook By John Atherton – Cooperatives UK


orker Co-operatives are joining together on the web using the social networking site Facebook. CooperativesUK has created a Facebook group for UK worker Co-operatives. This group now has over 130 members and growing. “This is a place to find out about worker co-operatives and ask for advice. Experienced worker co-operatives are also using this group to talk, share ideas and co-operate with other worker co-operatives.” The UK is not alone there are also US and Canadian Worker Co-operatives Groups. The International Co-operative Alliance also has a group with over 200 members. There are probably a lot more countries with groups active on Facebook or other social networking sites. If you know of any, please send us the details. ◊




Barack Obama is a cooperative member Source: Confcooperative, Rome (http://www Barack Obama: President – Cooperator. Barack Obama has bee n member of a bookselle r cooperative in Chica go since 1986. This ne ws has been reveale d by the Ita lia n wee kly ne wspaper Ita lia Cooperativa, the official journa l of Confcooperative. The President of United States of America is member of the bookseller cooperative “The Seminary Coop”, a consumer owned bookstore with three Chicago locations. This co-op has been a radiant cultural presence in the Chicago area since it was established in 1961, but 2008 brought a distinct upgrade in its prof ile when it around the world and are stronger where in developed economies.” ◊ emerged that Barack Obama and his family were frequent visitors to the store, which is Some numbers only about half a mile from their home. The In the USA the co-operatives count on 20 co-op has about 53,000 members and in 2007, million members, 290 billion dollars of agthe three stores in the co-operative racked up gregate turnover and are active in several about $6 million in sales, with about $4.5 mileconomic sectors: credit, social services, aglion of that coming from the members. riculture, and one of the most active sectors “This is a fact”- says Luigi Marino, president of is linked to users’ cooperation model on the Confcooperative- “which denies a prov incial electrical sector. It could be enough to think and reductive vision of cooperatives as a typiabout 864 cooperatives supply ing energy for 40 million citizens. cal Italian reality. Cooperatives are spread all

The Canadian Worker Co-op & Trade Union Movements: Joint Action Par Hazel Corcoran, Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF) Leaders from the worker co-op and trade union movements in Western Canada have been actively collaborating since September 2006, when the Western Labour-Worker Co-op Council (the “Council”) was formed. The Council is attempting to replicate the approach taken by the Ohio Employee Ownership Center to provide technical assistance to employee buy-outs. Lynn Williams, then 82, legendary leader of the Steelworkers’ plant rescues across North America, was the opening speaker at the group’s first meeting and declared it “historic.” Williams is a pioneer of North American union-led buyouts. The Council’s mandate includes building the capacity to respond where unionized employees want to explore buying out a business as a worker co-operative or other type of employee-owned enterprise due to business succession or a crisis situation. (continued on next page)



Speakers at later Council meetings include David Levi, CEO of GrowthWorks, the second largest Labour-Sponsored Investment Fund in the country, Tom Croft, of the Heartland Labor-Capital Network in Pennsylvania, Michael MacIsaac, Executive Director of the Canadian Labour Congress, and Dave Sitaram, President of the Canadian Co-operative Association. The Council is run on a volunteer basis by representatives from CWCF, the Canadian Labour Congress, and other supportive organizations from the worker co-op and trade union movements. With the global recession gathering steam, trade unionists and worker co-operators have more and Participants at the first meeting of the more reasons to work together. In the context of Western Labour-Worker Coop Council escalating job losses in resource and manufacturing industries, there is a great deal of good will and enthusiasm within the Council, and by co-operating, we aim to provide working people with greater control over their economic life. ◊

For more information, see: , or write to Hazel Corcoran, hazel@

Le Réseau de la coopération du travail du Québec (Quebec Worker Co-operative Network) joins the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation By the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF) In autumn 2008, the Réseau de la coopération du travail du Québec (more commonly known as "Network") became a member of

ganization created by the merger of Québéc Federation of Worker Cooperatives (FQCT) and the “Regroupement québécois pour la

One of the services offered by the Network is the Cooperative Youth Services (CJS). Each CJS project consists of twelve to fifteen young

the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF), which is the first time a Quebec federation has joined the CWCF. The worker co-op movement in Quebec represents two-thirds of the worker cooperatives in Canada, so it is a very important event for the CWCF. One

coopération du travail” (RQCT). After many months of study, analysis, and consultation, the Network, which is incorporated as a solidarity cooperative, was established in the spring of 2007.

people aged between fourteen and seventeen years, who create worker co-ops over the summer months. Together with the support of their community, they face the challenge of establishing their worker cooperative to create employment in their locality. These young people

implication is that Quebec is now represented on the Board of Directors of the CWCF. Alain Bridault of the Orion Co-operative, now sits on the board of CWCF for the Network. In November, Alain was elected as a Director and then immediately appointed Vice President of the CWCF. The Network is a relatively new or-

The new Network brings together the services of both organizations (FQCT and RQCT), while serving the mandate to develop a variety of services dedicated specifically to worker co-operative training and consulting services related to collective management by workers, networking and mentoring, referral to specialized resources, political representation, etc.

For more information, in French, see:

offer many services to their community. There are nearly 300 worker cooperatives in Quebec operating in sectors as diverse as forestry, ambulance services, arts and culture, catering, information technology and health care services. ◊


ASIA Worker Cooperative Legislative Movement in Japan By Yoshiko Yamada, JWCU Although the concept of worker cooperatives is relatively uncommon in Japan, there are more than 30,000 people are already involved. Japan is one of the few developed countries without a cooperative law which worker cooperatives can use. In order to achieve legal recognition of worker cooperatives, Japanese Workers’ Cooperative Union (JWCU), in collaboration with various organizations and people throughout the world, has been working hard for the approval of a worker cooperative law. For example, the Worker Cooperative Legislation Civic Council was founded in November 2000, and JWCU has been holding a series of citizen forums for the law

throughout the nation since 2001. Moreover, a non-partisan, all-party parliamentary group was founded in February 2008 to promote the legislation. As of January 2009, this group has 164 members. At a local level, 411 out of 1,800 local assemblies have sent the Diet letters recommending the immediate approval of the law (as of January 20, 2009). We have high hopes that the Diet will finally approve the law this year. JWCU appreciates all the support in this legislative movement. ◊

China: The Hundred Flowers Needlework Cooperative in Magao village, Ningxia autonomous region By Gung Ho - ICCIC This cooperative was established in October 2007 and has 109 members, all of whom are women. The cooperative functions under the cooperative principles to produce handicraft needlework, which allows them to increase their capacities to study, organise, and enter the market. They have launched a needlework brand with characteristics from China’s North East. The establishment of the cooperative has increased their income, improved their living conditions, and contributed to local development. The long-term goal of the cooperative is to channel the women’s wisdom and skills to develop the local handicraft needlework techniques, and help them enter the domestic and international market to increase their income, obtain the recognition of their labour, raise their general capacities, stimulate a world vision based on autonomy and trust in their own strength, reinforce their sense of selfrecognition and of social responsibility, and create new rural development.



Wu Cuiyu and her Sisters’ Cooperatives By Gung Ho - ICCIC Wu Cuiyu leads the Shanghai Women’s Experimental Correspondence Training Institute, is a school for ordinary women, under the guidance of the pedagogical philosophy of Chinese educationalist, Tao Xinghe. Throughout the 14 years since it was established in June 1994, the school has organised free technical training in over 20 specialities for approximately 20 000 poor women trainees from Jiangxi and Shaanxi provinces and from the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. It has also helped establish 15 cooperatives among the Shanghai trainees. Those cooperatives are a way to develop home-based industries and thus solve employment and income problems for many laid off women workers and

Wu Cuiyu

poor rural women. Since the year 2000, the institute has helped laid off women workers from Shanghai’s urban area, the wives of migrant workers from inside China, and ex-farmers from the Shanghai suburbs who have left agriculture, to find a path towards employment based on home-made handicrafts. In order to do this, the institute has dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to organise training sessions in different handicraft techniques based on the Gung Ho cooperative principles of “working hard, working together, cooperating in solidarity, becoming welloff together”. It has helped organise one cooperative after the other, allowing many trainees to give full play to their talents, raise their income, and enjoy the situation in which “each person is a master, each one is a boss”. ◊

A hand that lifts India's downtrodden women Excerpts from an article by Somini Sengupta, published on 6 March 2009 in the International Herald Tribune Ahmedabad, India. Thirty-five years ago in this once-thriving textile town, Ela Bhatt fought for higher wages for women who ferried bolts of cloth on their heads. Then, she created India's first women's bank. Since then, her Self-Employed Women's Association, or Sewa, has offered retirement accounts and health insurance to women who never had a safety net, lent working capital to entrepreneurs to open beauty salons in the slums, helped artisans sell their handiwork to new urban department stores, and trained its members to become gasoline station attendants - an audacious job for women on the bottom of the social ladder. Small, soft-spoken and usually dressed in a grandmotherly handspun cotton sari, Bhatt, 76, is a Gandhian pragmatist for the new India. She is a critic of some aspects of India's embrace of market reforms. But she wants to see the poorest of Indian workers get a stake in the country's swelling and swiftly globalizing economy.

Ela Bhatt (continued on next page)


She has built a formidable empire of women-run cooperatives - 100, at last count - some providing child care for working mothers, others selling sesame seeds to Indian food processing firms, and they are all modeled on the Gandhian ideal of self-sufficiency, while also advancing modern ambitions. (…) Tinsmiths or pickle-makers, embroiderers or vendors of onions, Sewa's members are mostly employed in the informal sector. They get no regular paychecks, sick leave or holidays. (…) Without Sewa, they would be hard-pressed to have health benefits or access to credit. With 500,000 members in the western state of Gujarat alone, the Sewa empire also includes two profit-making firms that stitch and embroider women's clothing sold by an upscale department store chain. More than 100,000 women are enrolled in its health and life insurance plans. Its bank has 350,000 depositors and a very high repayment rate - as much as 97 percent. Loans range from around $100 to $1,100, with a steep interest rate of 15 percent. "We don't have a liquidity problem," its manager, Jayshree Vyas, pointed out merrily. "Women save." On a recent morning, Behrampura buzzed with work and hustle. Men dissembled old television sets and filled new sofas. A woman pushed a hand cart loaded with used suitcases. Another herded a half-dozen donkeys piled with construction debris. (…) Bhatt's Gandhian approach is evident in the way she lives. Her two-bedroom bungalow is small and spare. The one bit of whimsy is a white swing that hangs from the ceiling in the center of the living room. She uses her bed as a desk chair. Her grandson has painted a child's pastoral mural on the bedroom wall. She is known for having no indulgences. "Above all, you should emphasize her simplicity," said Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management here who has followed Sewa's work for over a decade, sometimes critically. "In her personal life, there is not the

“Freedom, one woman said, was "looking a policeman in the eye”

slightest tinge of hypocrisy." (…) Not long ago, Bhatt asked Sewa members what freedom meant to them. Some said it was the ability to step out of the house. Others said it was having a door to the bathroom. Some said it meant having their own money, a cellphone or "fresh clothes everyday." Then she told of her favorite. Freedom, one woman said, was "looking a policeman in the eye." ◊ Source:

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Work Together Issue 1 - May 2009  

Joint publication of CICOPA and CECOP CICOPA-Europe