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.

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).

Going up: limit for individual investments in coops to be £100,000

The Treasury announced today an important change potentially affecting all cooperatives and ‘bencoms’ (societies for the benefit of the community) registered under the Industrial & Provident Societies Act. From next year, the maximum amount which an individual member can invest through the usual ‘withdrawable share capital’ route is to go up from the current £20,000 to £100,000.

There’s been criticism for some time that £20,000 is too low (the threshold was last increased in 1994).  Some agricultural cooperatives in particular have argued that the number of farmer-members in a typical agri-coop is small relative to the amount of capital that can be required,  and that therefore a £20,000 limit unduly restricts their development.  Co-operatives UK has also warmly welcomed the increase in the limit.

The increase to £100,000 will potentially apply to the rapidly growing number of community share issues, including those for community pubs, village shops, and community-led renewable energy projects.  Major projects using community share issues could now find it possible to raise quite significant amounts of capital.

The fundamental cooperative principle that all shareholder-investors have one vote regardless of how much they have invested remains, of course. But the new £100,000 limit will be discretionary and each individual coop and bencom will need to discuss whether they really want to have investments of this size held by individuals in their business.  One point to consider is whether, even with a one-member-one-vote rule, big investors might in practice be able to make their views count for more.  Another is the cash flow implications for a business if an individual with a major investment requested the return of their money.

The change is coming in during 2014.  The government has also tabled today in parliament a consolidation act covering coops and bencoms, and this is expected to get royal assent next year.  A consolidation act merely tidies up previous legislation (there are no new provisions) but is still a welcome move.

The Treasury report is available online here.

Ethics and the Co-op Bank

Organisers of the Save Our Bank campaign to keep the Co-operative Bank ethical, which is being led by the Ethical Consumer magazine (itself a cooperative, of course), last week met with the Co-op Group’s chief executive Euan Sutherland. The campaign issued its latest online newsletter last Thursday.

My own view is that, with the capital restructure and the arrival of the hedge funds, the Co-op Bank will be well outside what could legitimately be called a cooperative business so in that sense the moment to ‘save’ it has passed. But nevertheless it is clearly valuable to pressure the bank to retain an ethical approach to the banking business. We need to remember though that (even given recent media attention) its reputation as an ethical bank is currently the Co-op Bank’s USP so it is hardly in the investors’ own interests not to support it, at least with lip-service.

Perhaps the most interesting discussions within the Save Our Bank campaign, I think, are around the possibilities of future re-mutualisation.  I would be delighted to see this, although realistically I think you have to conclude that the prospects are currently very distant.  But this links directly to the issue of suitable cooperative capital instruments for cooperatives, which I have been banging on about endlessly in recent months and which I will seize this moment to mention yet again.

What will 2014 bring for coops?

The Guardian’s social enterprise site is carrying on the usual tradition of newspapers at this time of year in running pieces looking back on the year just ending and forward to the year ahead.  Among contributors offering their reflections on the way forward for coops in 2014 are Ed Mayo, head of Co-operatives UK, Peter Holbrook who leads Social Enterprise UK, and Vivian Woodell, Chief Executive of the Phone Coop. I was also asked to contribute my thoughts for this feature.  If you want to read what we’re all saying, you’ll find the piece here.  There is also of course the facility for you to leave your own comments.

Advent(ures) in the social and solidarity economy

I’ve been finishing off today the last in a series of 24 short pieces on British social enterprises and cooperatives, which The Guardian is using for its 2013 online social enterprise ‘advent calendar’ (you’ll need to look at the website here and here to see what exactly this means).

Organisations covered in the series include some well-known social enterprises such as the Big Issue and Jamie Oliver’s 15, but it’s the small initiatives, often inspired by one key individual, which I found particularly interesting to report on. Good luck to them all.

In Britain, we are becoming familiar with the term ‘social enterprise’. Internationally, including at the UN, the talk tends to be of the ‘social and solidarity economy’, SSE. If you’re interested in some of the debates happening globally around SSE, a good place to start may be this UNRISD webpage.

Voting for member democracy

A ballot paper arrives:  there are seven members standing for three places on the Board of Directors of the Phone Co-op.  Good cooperative corporate governance requires among other things active member democracy, and the Phone Co-op almost always obliges in this respect.

(Yes, all right, six of the seven are men, and better gender balance would be helpful.  But just at the moment I want to focus on good things happening in the cooperative sector).

Conviviality all round: the cooperative way to organise a tourism business

Damn, two days late.  Wednesday was, I have now been told, the European Day of Tourism.  If only I’d known in time…

Better late than never, however, I have been looking into what’s going on in the burgeoning area of tourism cooperatives.  I had a brief phone call this morning from Peter Hogbin of the Heart of Argyll Tourism Alliance, a cooperative established two years ago to promote their part of Scotland.  I hope to find out more from Peter about what they’re up to in due course.

Heart of Argyll is one of only a handful of tourism-related coops in the UK, at least according to Co-operatives UK.  But plenty is happening abroad.  A press release in Spanish in my email today claims that more than a thousand worker coops in Europe are engaged in tourism-related businesses, helping to “promote a more sustainable and responsible form of tourism”.

There’s certainly plenty of ways to organise your 2014 holiday the cooperative way, if you’re so minded.  Italy in particular seems crammed with possibilities, with everything from Libera Terra coops managing lands confiscated from the Mafia to the community-based Briganti di Cerreto in the mountain village of Cerreto north-west of Florence, set up in 2003 partly to help prevent a drift by local young people away from the countryside.  The coop brigands of Cerreto offer among other things a good-looking fifteenth-century converted mill to sleep in.

Maurizio Davolio, President of one of Italy’s federations of tourism coops Legacoop Turismo,  gave examples of tourism coops from across Europe at a tourism conference in Benidorm in April this year (his slides are available online). His argument is that cooperative tourism respects workers’ rights, acknowledges the cultural identity of areas, encourages local cuisine from coop producers, and last but not least offers “conviviality and a friendly atmosphere”.

Incidentally, the International Labour Organization’s COOP unit has just announced that it will be undertaking a scoping exercise to explore the extent of tourism coops worldwide.  The ILO is looking particularly at Italy, France, the UK, Canada, Argentina, Malaysia, China, India and Egypt.  Preliminary results are promised shortly.

Calais cross-channel ferry coop hails legal decision

A little cheerfulness has been breaking out over the past two days in a windy and wintry Calais…  or more precisely among the 533 employees of the cross-channel ferry company MyFerryLink which has its main base there.

MyFerryLink operates three boats on the Dover-Calais crossing, and is structured as a workers’ cooperative incorporated under French law (to be technical, it is a SCOP, a société coopérative et participative).  The coop was created two years ago, with trade union support, after the former ferry operator SeaFrance went out of business and the majority of MyFerryLink’s workers are ex-SeaFrance staff.  You can read the piece I wrote at the time for The Guardian here.

When the cooperative was established it did a deal with EuroTunnel, who purchased the three ships MyFerryLink needed and leased them back to the coop.  EuroTunnel also encouraged freight operators with hazardous cargo to use the boats rather than the tunnel. However this arrangement fell foul of the UK Competition Commission which ruled in July that EuroTunnel had acquired an unfair market share. As a consequence MyFerryLink were told they would have to stop using Dover port, potentially putting the fledgling venture out of business.

The Competition Commission ruling was partially overturned at an appeal earlier this week in London. Although the legal battle is continuing, the response in France has been to see the tribunal decision as “a victory and a relief”,  according to MyFerryLink senior management.  “We’re proud of all that the staff have done since the start of this adventure, which has been difficult,” said Raphaël Doutrebente, deputy Director-General for the cooperative in an interview yesterday with the newspaper Libération.