Co-operatives Need be at the Heart of a Fair Recovery

Co-operatives and social enterprises already do a lot across Wales – they must be at the heart of the post-Covid economic agenda, writes Daniel Roberts.

The fundamental changes to our lives during the Covid-19 crisis will have long-lasting consequences for the people of Wales.

There can be no doubt that difficult economic challenges lie ahead of us, but in the past few months we have seen communities across Wales come together and look out for each other. Now, there are calls for us to collectively re-imagine the society we build following the crisis. Our economy doesn’t have to work the way it always has, and we can value wellbeing, sustainability and our communities first and foremost.

On Tuesday the 30th of June, the Senedd’s Cross Party Group for Co-operatives and Mutuals had a special virtual meeting, in the middle of Co-operatives Fortnight. Chaired by Vikki Howells MS, the meeting was an opportunity to discuss how co-operatives and community-focused models of ownership are already making such a crucial impact in communities across Wales, and how they can be a fundamental part of the “Build Back Better” initiative. 

Dr Anthony Samuel of Cardiff University gave context to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on social enterprises at the ground-level. Although we are in challenging times, there is also reason to be hopeful – in one poll, just 6% of the British public stated that they wanted the economy to return to the way it was before the beginning of the crisis.

However, while there has been a reset of how we see the economy, there is no guarantee it will lead to permanent change. Dr Samuel drew on the work of Naomi Klein and the idea of disaster capitalism, and how the discourse around our economy will still be dominated by large corporations seeking to make profit out of the tumultuous era we live in. It is up to us to ensure that the narrative of economic change can persist. 

Dr Samuel made note of specific industries that could benefit hugely from social enterprise and co-operative values. One example is care homes – they have been at the epicentre of the crisis, and even before it began the sustainability of the economic model they were working in was coming into question. Now, 50% of care homes in Wales can be considered to be in a financially vulnerable state.

Across the UK, there are 120 care homes run as social enterprises, and these can be a blueprint and examples of best practice for models of care homes that are based on wellbeing and social value, not profit, for the residents and the workers they employ and supply chains they work with.

Listening to Dr Samuel, there can be no doubt that social enterprises and co-operatives have the potential to make a huge difference to our society, and the current crisis can be seen as an opportunity as well as a struggle.

The business models currently dominating these industries simply do not allow for better conditions for workers.

We must support and respect social enterprises, operationalise the way we work with them, and trust them to serve our communities. There will be those seeking to return to business as usual, but there can be no doubt we have an opportunity to build a new, socially astute economy. 

The problems that existed in the pre-crisis economy were stark, and understanding how they were created and exacerbated by the ownership structures that dominate our economy is crucial as we seek to build a new way of doing things.

Nisreen Mansour of Wales Trades Union Congress (TUC) discussed how the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted existing inequalities – with old problems around regional inequalities and the gender and BAME pay-gaps being seen again in the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and the response to it.

Trade unions have long considered that we must address the root cause of unfair labour markets, which come from the naturally unequal relationship between worker and employer. We can not rely on individual action to solve these problems, and unionization and collective bargaining is the solution – but we won’t see a growth in these important areas without policy intervention. 

Two industries in which greater levels of collective voice and unionization could make a big difference are Hospitality and Tourism. These are two crucial parts of the Welsh economy, but the 100,000 workers in these industries in Wales currently have low unionization and weak collective voice, with precarious work such as zero-hours contracts and low wages common.

In the experience of the TUC in working with firms in these industries, they have said that the business models currently dominating these industries simply do not allow for better conditions for workers. Therefore, the TUC believes that the Government should not continue to fund business models that don’t allow for fair work, and instead look towards alternative models such as unionized co-ops. 

Finally, we heard from practitioners of co-operative values and social enterprises in Wales. Sara Burch discussed the experiences of credit unions across Wales and their response to the crisis, and in particular her own Gateway Credit Union.

Everything changed when lockdown was initiated, and they had to suddenly transition to an online service. Sara discussed the “credit union difference”, as they looked to serve their members; releasing savings where necessary, checking in on elderly members, and increasing levels of savings.

They discussed how they had opened accounts for community groups, and worked with key members of the foundational economy. The future will hold new and old challenges, but credit unions across Wales want to work together, exchange best practice and pool resources, to step up and continue to support communities across Wales during this period. 

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Paul O’Hara from Drive – Cardiff Taxis spoke of their experience of stepping up and meeting the needs of their workers and the community during the Covid-19 crisis. He said they lost 95% of pre-booked work when the crisis began, but decided as a collective to provide free shopping trips for the elderly, paying the drivers with the group’s savings, and giving a 25% discount to key workers, including those outside the health and care sectors working in factories and industries that kept us going through the lockdown.

They found that they had attracted new customers during this period, and now, with society and the economy beginning to re-open, old customers had started coming back. Paul spoke of his hope that the rise in community spirit we have seen during this period isn’t forgotten and can be harnessed for social and economic good. 

The range of expertise and experience in this meeting shows the strength of the social enterprise and co-operative sector in Wales, and just how powerful the movement can be in response to the challenges we face.

On a political level, we have seen a newfound resolve to view our economy differently, and take radical steps to place wellbeing at the heart of what we do. This meeting was just an introduction to the steps that can be taken to truly value and trust our co-operatives and social enterprises in Wales, and the discussion that followed ranged from embedding social enterprise in the school curriculum to the role of place and community spirit in motivating people to get involved. 

This meeting was just a snapshot of the impact and potential of the co-operative movement in communities across Wales. With greater support, a new type of economy focused on wellbeing is possible.

On the 15th of July, the Social Enterprise Task Force will be launching a Vision and Action Plan for the sector, and we look forward to working together to ensure that the support this sector needs to fulfil its potential is secured.

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Photo by Lexi Ruskell on Unsplash

Daniel Roberts is a Policy and Research Officer at the Wales Co-operative Centre.

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