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The services sector has been largely hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How does ILO COOP foresee a just recovery of the sector and what are some of its initiatives in that direction?


The mandatory shutdowns of non-essential businesses and the confinement of billions of people to their homes have been revamping societies and economies. The impact is unevenly distributed for households, workers, and businesses, further exacerbating inequalities that already exist. Service sectors have been among the hardest hit by the restrictions. Let us take the case of media and culture workers and businesses.


During the confinement, media and cultural products have been uplifting people through music, films, television and other art forms for entertainment, education, and cultural enrichment. At the same time live performances, recordings were severely restricted or discontinued. As a result, workers in the sector were among the hardest hit with unemployment. Even during normal times many of these workers were on part-time, on-demand and project-based agreements with high rates of informality among them.


With the global pandemic, their already limited access to social security benefits, such as paid sick leave and health care, have exposed them to heightened risk. The pandemic has also accelerated existing trends in the sector, challenging existing traditional business models, increasing the use of technologies. In the transition to normality, ad hoc measures and procedures must be tailored to address the specific needs of the subsectors so that work can be carried out safely. Health and safety considerations must be balanced with the economic needs.


Special support for the industry may be needed to address this very delicate balance. In this period, the culture sector has benefited from rescue packages adopted by some governments, aimed at ensuring the economic survival of businesses and access to social security benefits. Among the measures used are injecting liquidity and income support into the industry, the deferral of social security payments for both workers and employers; and indemnity funds (for redundancies).


The ILO has documented the situation and responses to relieve the workers and businesses in the culture and entertainment sectors. At ILO COOP we have highlighted the work of worker cooperatives in the cultural and entertainment sectors and how they have advocated with their governments so their members could benefit from rescue packages during the global pandemic. These include presentations featured in ILO webinars and symposia (e.g. Doc Servizi in Italy), videos and other features (e.g. Wazo coop in Spain).


Migrant workers were one of the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. At ILO COOP, how do you see cooperative identity playing a role in safeguarding the interest of workers? 


Tens of millions of migrant workers have been forced to return home because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The labour markets in their countries of origin, already fragile before the outbreak, are further weakened by high levels of unemployment and serious business disruptions. In addition, their families suffer a financial loss of the remittances normally sent to them. At the same time, other migrant workers have found themselves stranded in host countries without access to social protection and little resources to sustain their basic survival needs.


Of the estimated 164 million migrant workers worldwide, nearly half of them are women, doing essential jobs in host societies during the pandemic, particularly in the care or agriculture sectors. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, cooperatives already played various roles in migrant women and men’s lives. Host community cooperatives provided integration services to migrants, including training and job placement services. They also recruited them as workers and members. Migrant workers also formed cooperatives that provide services for themselves or their host communities.


During the pandemic, cooperatives of migrant workers have advocated for the inclusion of their members in national COVID-19 responses. They have also raised resources to support members who have lost their jobs and livelihoods.  Although cooperatives might be reaching out to migrant workers across countries, their potential to improve the lives of the increasing number of people who are migrating is under-utilized and continues to be hampered by a lack of knowledge and understanding of the cooperative business model and how cooperatives can respond to the specific needs of migrants. In some destination countries, the continued limitations on the rights of migrant workers to form their businesses can have an impact on their ability to join and form cooperatives.


Even when the cooperative form of business is introduced to potential members, their promoters may often underestimate the need for capacity building, business management skills, and specific training in cooperative governance. Existing migrant education programmes for departing and returning workers, entrepreneurship education and business support services can explore the cooperative option. Mentorship and accompaniment programmes for migrant worker cooperative initiatives have also proven to be effective toward ensuring their operational and financial sustainability.

Cooperatives have been successfully contributing to SDG 8. How ILO engages with cooperatives and wider SSE enterprises to adapt to the changing world of work?


As outlined in the brief produced by the committee on the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (COPAC) on SDG8, cooperative enterprises have the ability to both create and sustain jobs. Cooperatives can advance decent work by formalising the informal economy by creating economies of scale, collective voice, and negotiation power. They have the potential to create not only quality jobs but also space for people to pool their resources and skills to create their economic opportunities. Based on the cooperative principle of open and voluntary membership, they can also be inclusive enterprises that offer the chance to some of the most vulnerable groups, such as low-income women, unemployed youth, persons with disabilities, indigenous people, migrants, and refugees, to actively participate in the formal economy.


The ILO is the specialized agency of the UN with a mandate on social justice and decent work. It has had a Cooperatives Unit since 1920. It remains the only specialized agency of the United Nations with an explicit mandate on cooperatives. The ILO views cooperatives as important in improving the living and working conditions of women and men globally, as well as making essential infrastructure and services available even in areas neglected by the state and investor-driven enterprises. The first ILO Director-General, Albert Thomas, was from the cooperative move­­­ment himself. Recognizing the importance of cooperatives, he established a Cooperative Service in the ILO in 1920. And cooperators are mentioned explicitly in Article 12 of the ILO constitution. As the representative of cooperatives worldwide, the International Cooperative Alliance holds a general consultative status at the ILO. 


In 2002 an international standard, a Recommendation on the promotion of cooperatives was adopted at the International Labour Conference. In 2018, the International Conference of Labour Statisticians adopted guidelines concerning statistics of cooperatives which sets a statistical standard toward achieving harmonized and internationally comparable data on cooperative enterprises. In the last decade, the ILO has expanded its support for cooperative development to the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) through research, policy advisory and capacity building, and development projects and academies on specific topics that bring researchers, practitioners, and policymakers together. The 341st Governing Body of the ILO decided to place an item related to “Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) for a human-centred future of work” on the agenda of the 110th Session (2022) of the International Labour Conference (ILC) for general discussion.


The ILO works with cooperatives and the social and solidarity economy organizations through a series of activities including legal and policy advisory services, training and capacity building, research, development cooperation projects and partnerships. In delivering on its mandate, the COOP unit at the ILO uses a three-pronged strategy:


  • Encouraging and assisting with the integration of decent work agenda as a priority in the work of cooperatives and other SSE enterprises and organizations including through capacity building tools and strategies;
  • Ensuring that specificities of cooperatives and other SSE enterprises and organizations are recognized in analysis, policy, and actions toward achieving decent work agenda and a sustainable future for all, by the ILO and its constituents; and
  • Activating the potential of cooperatives and other SSE enterprises and organizations as economically, socially, and environmentally responsible and viable business options for a sustainable future of work.


Digitization has created new forms of work and working relationships. At ILO COOP, how do you see the values of cooperation in addressing these trends and in ensuring the future of workers in a digitized world?


New technologies are changing the way work is organized and governed. They are redefining the relationships between workers and employers especially in emerging sectors like the platform economy. Due to limited or non-existent national and/or international regulatory frameworks, there are significant risks of decent work non-compliance.


For the positive potential of technology to be realized, and its threats to be countered, new models of collective ownership and democratic governance could be used. Cooperatives and the wider SSE can help strengthen the voice and representation of workers in the platform economy. Platform cooperatives are being established in recent years by self-employed and gig economy workers.


Platform cooperatives are emerging as member-owned businesses that use a website, mobile application, or protocol to connect or to organize services. They use the cooperative model to have more democratic ownership and control of digital platforms. They are being utilized by a range of workers and users. These include existing cooperatives of informal economy workers adopting online applications to bring the goods and services of their members to users in a way where they have more control; and freelancers, artists, technology workers, and others in the gig economy use them and often get support from trade unions in their sectors when doing so.


Young people have an important role to play in the economy but face challenges of unemployment, unsettled markets, and an uncertain future. Cooperatives provide youth entrepreneurial opportunities with values and principles. How does ILO COOP encourage and support youth in meeting their aspirations?


Even before the pandemic, young people faced a tough situation in the labour market. At the global level, young people were three times more likely to be unemployed compared with adults. And before the crisis, unemployment affected 67.6 million young women and men, 13.6% of the youth labour force. One-fifth of the world’s youth were not in employment, nor were they in education or training. There was a gender dimension to this. Young women were more than twice as likely as young men to be unemployed or outside the labour force and not in education or training. More than three out of four of the world’s young workers had informal jobs compared with 60% of adults.


The situation has become worse with the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has been hurting youth in many ways. First, with the disruptions to their education, training, and work-based learning. Second, through increased difficulties for young jobseekers, especially those seeking their first job. Third, through job and income losses, along with the deteriorating quality of employment. These challenges can have life-long repercussions for young people who graduate during crises. It is more evident than ever that the world needs innovative solutions.


Cooperatives are among the business models that can create work opportunities and better working conditions for them. They can help young people both to find work and to gain work experience, as well as offer opportunities for professional and vocational training. At the same time, young people can help modernize and energize cooperatives through their engagement in new sectors and economic activities.


Young people have contributed to the emergence of a new generation of cooperatives, with promising results. These include worker cooperatives of young graduates in cultural and creative sectors like music, theatre, and graphic design; platform cooperatives of young programmers in the technology sector, and freelancers who are delivery workers, bike messengers and taxi drivers; renewable energy cooperatives; organic and bio agricultural cooperatives; social cooperatives of care providers, social workers, educators; consumer cooperatives like university and student; and housing cooperatives.


At ILO COOP we have been supporting our colleagues in the field offices in delivering youth employment initiatives through cooperatives and a wider social and solidarity economy. These include support for research, policy reform, and capacity building initiatives. Two projects are worth mentioning - In one of the projects, we work with disadvantaged young people in rural areas in Cambodia and the Lao People's Democratic Republic who face specific challenges in accessing the labour market. For those in employment, many are in poor quality and low-paying jobs. The project aims to build institutional capacities to deliver innovative and value-added services with a special focus on employment readiness/ foundational skills empowerment and cooperative development for marginalized and at-risk youth.


The second initiative is to support Tunisian youth through social and solidarity entrepreneurship. The initiative is to create decent jobs for young men and women in disadvantaged regions through the promotion of SSE and its organizations. To this end, the ILO works to improve the regional governance of the SSE through the establishment of a platform for coordinating SSE stakeholders. At the level of the target governorates, the initiative is providing technical and financial support to create SSE projects involving women and young people either as majority members of the SSE organizations or as direct beneficiaries of these projects.