Shameful: coops that fail to endorse good labour standards

Here are the names of some well-known non-cooperatives: Primark, H&M, Tesco, Adidas, Marks and Spencer, Lidl.

They, and some ninety or so other businesses, have signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between international trade unions, non-governmental organisations and retailers in the textile industry.  The Accord was launched in May, a few weeks after the terrible collapse of the Savar factory outside Dhaka which killed over 1100 people.

And here are the names of two major cooperatives:  Migros, Coop Swiss.

Both are giant retailers in Switzerland (both are separately bigger by turnover than the UK’s own Co-operative Group). And both, despite trade union pressure, have not signed the Accord.

Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Philip Jennings who leads UNI Global Union (representing trade unions in retailing, among other things) recently held a mini-demo outside one of Migros’ stores.  Good for them.

If cooperatives want to claim the ethical high ground – as they should – then they have to be at the forefront of initiatives like this.  My own view?: personally I’d like to see compliance with the International Labour Organization’s agreed core labour standards written in to the International Co-operative Alliance’s cooperative principles.

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Another week, another cooperative…

Having just posted about the social enterprise ‘advent calendar’, it seems to make sense to give a plug for the one-coop-a-week initiative from CICOPA, the global voice of workers’ cooperatives.  CICOPA are posting a short introduction to a selected cooperative each week on Facebook and Twitter (the Twitter hashtag is #1coop1week).  Thanks to this I know, for example, how the workers now run the Molino Santa Rosa flour mill in Uruguay and how the Yellowstone Glass Recyclers in Northern Canada are turning waste glass into fancy new glassware.  And there’s plenty of other enterprising cooperative stories, from Japan to Wales.

As well as social media, CICOPA posts the 1coop1week entries on a website.

A new day, a new social enterprise…

Five more to go… we’re getting close to Christmas, so the social enterprise and cooperative ‘advent calendar’ which I’ve been writing for The Guardian’s social enterprise pages (one social enterprise a day from Dec 1st) is also getting close to its conclusion (advent calendars traditionally stop on Christmas Eve, and so will this one).

Today’s entry offers you some information about the Dartington Hall trust near Totnes in Devon.  Yesterday was the turn of Jamie Oliver’s 15 restaurant.  Tuesday’s entry focused on Divine Chocolate.

Have we missed anyone’s favourite coop or social enterprise?  Sorry, but of course we will have done.  The Guardian’s comment section is open for your feedback (not to mention the chance of winning a social enterprise xmas hamper).

When cooperatives get complicated: do multi-stakeholder coops work?

Can coops work as coops if they have different classes of membership?

Could for example a retail cooperative be structured with two types of membership, one open to its customers and the other to its workers?

Or could a workers’ cooperative invite its supporters to invest in the business and give these investors membership rights?

The answer to both these questions is yes.  Mondragon’s retail arm Eroski in Spain provides a classic example of the first arrangement (customers and workers each have equal stakes in the coop’s governance) and for a forthcoming UK example we can turn to the Midlands cooperative which after its merger with Anglia is proposing to introduce a formal role for employee representatives on its board.

And there’s a good example of the second arrangement in the way that Ethical Consumer magazine has restructured itself, moving from being a traditional workers coop into one which also offers membership to its supporter-investors.

The issues around what are called multi-stakeholder coops are the theme of a piece I have contributed to the Guardian’s social enterprise site, posted at the end of last week. I’m pleased to see it is already attracting some feedback.

Multi-stakeholder coops are not in fact a new idea.  I’ve recently been doing a little amateur research into a nineteenth century producer cooperative in the town where I live where, as well as the workers, local cooperative societies also had ownership rights.  And of course if you look at the present-day governance arrangements for the Co-operative Group you’ll see that it too has representation from the remaining independent cooperative societies on its Board.  In this sense, it isn’t a 100% bona-fide consumer-owned cooperative – it’s a hybrid.

These sorts of arrangements generally seem to work adequately.  There may perhaps be potential conflicts of interest between the different classes of member, but methods seem to be found in practice to ensure that any tensions are creative rather then destructive.

But here’s the really big question:  what if one of the classes of stakeholder is made up of external investors with no particular interest in the cooperative except as a source of profit?  Can coops successfully be structured with investors as members?  Or when it comes to operating genuine cooperative businesses are they heading towards the exit door?

This is a philosophical question with immediate practical relevance, given what is about to happen to the Co-op Bank.  So more soon on this issue.  And please feel free to leave your own thoughts.

Sneezing in Manchester: the wider effects of the Co-op Bank’s difficulties

There’s a twitchy feel at the moment around Manchester’s cooperative quarter, where I was this morning.  This is the historic area near Manchester’s Victoria station where many of the most important institutions in the British cooperative movement (including Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative College and the Co-operative Press) have their offices… just down the road from the Co-operative Group’s sparkling (hubristic?) new office block.

The twitchiness comes of course from the Group’s current financial plight, brought about by the capital shortfall faced by its subsidiary, the Co-op Bank. The Bank will be going public soon on the precise deal it is proposing to its corporate and private bondholders.  But there is an expectation that the Group will be entering a period of considerable retrenchment – and that this will directly affect many other parts of the coop movement which directly or indirectly rely on the Group’s support.

This is the drawback of having the ‘one big society’ which the British coop movement talked about and debated for almost a hundred years before finally the Group came together at the start of this century.  When things go well, big can be beautiful.  But having all your coop eggs in one basket means risking much more when things go wrong.  As a senior figure in the movement put it to me today, “When the Group catches cold we all sneeze”.

Talking of the Bank and its need for private capital, Co-ops UK has moved quickly to commission coop historian and academic Johnston Birchall to write a report on experiences elsewhere in the world where cooperatives have brought in external minority investors.  Johnston’s report Good governance in minority investor-owned co-operatives is out today, and looks very valuable.  I hope to read it and offer some comments tomorrow. In the meantime Co-ops UK’s Ed Mayo has a thoughtful blog on the same subject.  Well worth a look.

Want info on a coop? It will cost you…

Long ago, if I wanted details on a limited company I was researching, I would take myself off to the old Companies House office near Old Street tube.  Now it’s so much easier: just log on to the Companies House website.  Documents are a £1 apiece.

But what’s this?  Try to get equivalent information on a cooperative or bencom (society for the benefit of the community) registered under the Industrial & Provident Societies Act and you will need to look at the list on the website of the Financial Conduct Authority.  And every document you want to access will cost you £12.

Should information on coops cost twelve times information on companies?  Of course not.  It’s not good for researchers, and it indirectly discourages high standards of cooperative governance.  (Incidentally, it also breaches international guidelines which say that coops should be treated no less favourably than other forms of enterprise).

Of course, the problem would be partly solved if coops and social enterprises ensured their rules and accounts were available on their own websites.  (Treat this as a gentle hint if you’re reading this, Greenwich Leisure…)

So tell us: Is there a coop alternative to capitalism?

A good idea has emerged from the cooperatively run magazine Ethical Consumer. Last year, to mark the UN International Year of Cooperatives,  the people there launched a competition inviting contributions on the theme Is there a cooperative alternative to capitalism?  There is something delightfully old-fashioned about the idea of an essay competition, but this one seems to have done the trick in attracting some worthwhile entries.

The best responses have now been brought together in a book, given the title People Over Capital . The book is published in conjunction with New Internationalist (another cooperatively run business, incidentally).

The interrogative phrasing of the original essay question has been replaced with the more confident subtitle for the book: The co-operative alternative to capitalism.  But in some ways I think we still need that question mark.  The essays here are interesting (inevitably some more interesting than others), but overall there remains a sense that the contributors are still finding it tough to grapple with both the theoretical and practical challenges of moving towards an alternative, more cooperative, economic system.  I find it hard to disagree with Cliff Mills when he writes: “The biggest boost to co-operative and mutual fortunes has been caused by events outside the movement, namely the financial crises since 2007…But in spite of all this, we still cannot argue today that there is a co-operative alternative to capitalism. Notwithstanding the collapse of confidence and damage to the reputation of traditional capitalism on the one hand and the revival in the fortunes of co-operative and mutual businesses on the other in truth not much has changed. Co-operative ideas seem to have been unable to seize the moment”.

Well, nobody said building an alternative to capitalism would be easy, not even Marx. Some interesting ideas in this book include the ‘cooperative’ implications of the open source IT movement (Nic Wistreich),  the contradiction of non-accountable for-profit corporations being cultivated within liberal democracies (Adam Fisher), and the limitations of cooperatives necessarily forced to survive within capitalism (Chris Tomlinson).

Ethical Consumer’s editor Rob Harrison writes in his introduction that “Reading the chapters in this book certainly feels like the beginning rather than the end of the discussion”.  He’s right.  Keep discussing…

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