Cooperatives and Formalization

by Simel Esim, ILO

This week more than 100 informal economy workers, mainly women, from over 40 countries, and those from solidarity organizations are participating in the 6th General Assembly of the Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) network in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

As I am watching the livestream from the event, I am struck by the energy, vision and accomplishments of the membership-based organizations of workers in the informal economy, largely led by women, since the network was formed in 1997. From street vendors (Streetnet International) and home-based workers to waste pickers (Global Alliance of Waste Pickers) and domestic workers (International Domestic Worker Federation), not only have they formed their national trade unions, cooperatives and solidarity economy organizations, but also established their international solidarity networks, alliances and federations to protect and advance the rights of their members.

Take the example of domestic workers, where the ILO has been a critical player. Domestic workers have mobilized through their unions and membership-based associations nationally, formed an International Domestic Workers Network, and successfully advocated for the passing of an ILO Convention and Recommendation on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. More recently, they formed a federation with 47 affiliates from 43 countries.

In a recent mapping undertaken by the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit in its Enterprises Department, over 40 cooperatives of domestic workers from around the world, which are facilitating their members’ transition to formality, were found. This has happened both through worker cooperatives as well as services cooperatives that provide a range of services from finance and housing to education and care. Domestic worker cooperatives market their members’ services, help negotiate contracts, provide education and advocate for rights of their members. Highlights of findings from the mapping on domestic worker cooperatives can be accessed in ILO COOP brief on cooperating out of isolation.

The cooperative world, especially that of workers' cooperatives, is starting to take note of domestic worker cooperatives. Late last year the Mondragon Bank and the National Cooperative Bank of the U.S. signed an agreement to support the establishment and development of domestic worker cooperatives.

I have been involved with WIEGO, a global action-research-policy network that seeks to improve the status of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy, since its beginnings 17 years ago as a development practitioner member. Since then I held a number of roles within WIEGO from regional coordinator to nominating committee member.  One of my most unforgettable experiences with WIEGO was spending a full day with a 70 year old woman waste picker cooperative leader from SEWA in Ahmedabad, India collecting waste - mainly paper, plastic items, iron and steel, wood, old cloth and glass bottles.

 Since SEWA established waste picker cooperatives and negotiated with the municipality for better terms and conditions of work for their members, other waste picker cooperatives have been formed around India and the world. During the International Labour Conference this June, we talked with Suman More from SWaCH, a solid waste collection and handling cooperative that was established by a trade union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari (KKPKP) in Pune, India. Suman said that before establishing their cooperative “when people passed us on the streets they would cover their noses, they would not talk to us or even stand next to us”. After the cooperative, she noted “there has been a big change in peoples’ attitudes” and that they “are treated with more respect”. You can read the full interview with Suman on the latest issue of ILO COOP News Update

 In a recent joint initiative with colleagues from the Sectoral Activities Department, we have looked into cooperatives of waste pickers in the electrical and electronic waste value chain, which is globally the fastest growing waste stream. Most of the world’s e-waste ends up in developing countries to be treated by workers in the informal economy who are vulnerable to the health and environmental risks of e-waste, have little power to negotiate their working conditions and end up recovering a fraction of the recyclable material while contaminating themselves and the poor communities where informal e-waste recycling takes place. Many of these challenges and opportunities can be addressed through the promotion of cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy organizations.

 Chris Bonner, the Director of WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme has indicated that the network has taken up cooperatives as a critical part of their workplan for the next five years. At ILO COOP, we look forward to working closely with WIEGO in strengthening cooperatives of informal economy workers in their transition to formality.