Q. What is Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union?Japan Workers’ Co-operative Union (JWCU) is a national centre of worker cooperatives and related organizations established in 1979. Unlike conventional companies where the roles of investors, managers and workers are separate, worker cooperatives are organizations where all the members take part in the capital contribution, management and work. Guided by the “Principles of Co-operatives of Associated Work” adopted by its General Assembly in 2015, JWCU works to promote the idea of “associated work”, i.e. a work created by workers and citizens by themselves responding to the needs and difficulties of each local community and managed through autonomous enterprises where every members share responsibilities and play active roles in the fund raising and democratic management, through supporting collaboration among member organizations, advocating for an enabling environment and cultivating international partnerships.
JWCU’s 25 member organizations represent 13,420 affiliated worker members and 51,206 older persons’ cooperative members (As of March 2017).
Q. What kinds of activities are worker cooperatives engaged in?Starting from the maintenance of buildings and parks, worker cooperatives of JWCU have entered into various businesses based on the needs of the local communities. The following are the main areas of work for JWCU’s member cooperatives. In the fiscal year of 2016, the total turnover of JWCU-affiliated cooperatives was about USD 300 million.
- Eldercare (day care, home visiting care, in-home care, preventive activities, etc.)
- Childcare (nursery school, after-school day-care centre, etc.)
- Care and support for persons with disabilities (day care, employment transfer support, etc.)
- Employment support (commissioned works on Youth Support Station, Independence Support System for Needy Persons, etc.)
- Building maintenance, greening and distribution services
- Public facility operations
- Job creation and community businesses in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake
- Agriculture, forestry, biodiesel fuel production, etc.
One of the impetus for worker cooperatives to expand their employment support was the “Youth Independence School” programme commissioned by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) in 2005. Young people who had difficulties in getting jobs participated in the programme to be reintegrated into society through group living and job experiential activities. After the government had closed the programme in 2009, worker cooperatives of JWCU continued to work with those young people in order to create jobs for them. Eventually, the cooperatives established a local welfare office called Aguriin in Shibayama town, Chiba Prefecture and launched a new business in 2011 for biodiesel production from used oils collected from the Narita Airport and selling it to local businesses and farmers. Since then four other biodiesel fuel plants have been established, all of which are managed cooperatively and provide workplace for young people with mental or social challenges (The case of Aguriin was featured in a video by CICOPA, see here).
Since 2007, worker cooperatives of JWCU has provided employment support for young people through “Youth Support Station” programme, commissioned by the MHLW in 22 offices around the country. In addition, under the frame of “Independence Support System for Needy Persons” which came into effect in April 2015, worker cooperatives have been commissioned employment support programmes by 87 local governments and working to prevent social isolations and poverty.
Another examples of a programme managed by JWCU, a local welfare office called Ajisai (hydrangea) in Chiba Prefecture provides work as caregivers for young people with mild development disorders and elder persons, creating an inclusive community where those workers and users support each other.
Q. How does the JWCU work?The highest decision-making body of JWCU is the annual General Assembly. As there is no law that defines the legal status of worker cooperatives in Japan, each member organization uses existing corporate status such as specified non-profit organizations, enterprise cooperatives. Based on the “Principles of Co-operatives of Associated Work”, each member of JWCU member organizations makes capital contributions and takes responsibility in the management under “one member one vote” principle.
Q. What are the challenges and opportunities for JWCU?Faced by the broadening inequality, relative poverty and the economic exhaustion of local communities, there is a growing expectation for worker cooperatives to effectively enable people to work autonomously for the local communities in Japan. In order to respond to this expectation, the most pressing issue for JWCU is to establish the law that defines worker cooperatives engaged in “associated work”.
JWCU has advocated for the establishment of the law through a civil network launched in 2000. In 2008, a non-partisan parliamentary association concerning a law on worker cooperatives was established and up until now at least 878 local governments have adopted letters requesting for the early enactment of the law.
In April 2017, a parliamentary association on cooperative development and research decided to prioritize the establishment of the law, and the following month a working group for this was set up by the ruling party to consider concrete policies.
JWCU believes that our mission to create sustainable communities where everyone works and lives together having a place to belong with and roles to play echoes with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). JWCU will continue to work for the mission linking its activities with the SDGs.
Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators is a series of interviews with cooperative leaders from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work with cooperatives. The responsibility for opinions expressed in this interview rests solely with the interviewees, and the article does not constitute an endorsement by the International Labour Office.