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When work is more than “just a job”

As the world celebrates the International Day of Cooperatives, ILO News looks at how one cooperative in Brooklyn, New York, is offering migrants a dignified and sustainable way to make a decent living.

Feature | 02 July 2015
Vanessa Bransburg, Director of the Cooperative Movement at the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn
BROOKLYN (ILO News) – Sunset Park is a low-income neighbourhood in South Brooklyn, New York. The community has been traditionally a first destination for new immigrants coming from places as different as Mexico, Puerto Rico, China, the Middle East and Europe. Many of them have limited English-language skills and education.

“Jobs paying a living wage in a safe and respectful environment are difficult to find for most people here,” says Vanessa Bransburg, Director of the Cooperative Movement at the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn. “They are often victims of exploitation and poor working conditions.”

Bransburg – who has provided technical assistance and consultation to Sunset Park migrant-run cooperatives since 2008– is well aware of the employment challenges many residents face. Traditional job search techniques do not usually work for them.

“This is due not only to the language barrier, but also it relates to their lack of knowledge of their rights as workers,” she explains.

It soon became clear that the cooperative model could be an efficient way to create meaningful and decent jobs. The Worker Cooperative Development Program was launched in 2006, acting as an incubator for worker cooperatives.

“The program assists members in the creation of cooperatives that will lead to long-term, stable jobs and a fair wage within a work environment that upholds the values of equity, dignity, and mutual respect for all workers,” she added.

The Center helps coordinate the formation and organization of each cooperative, by providing business consultation and comprehensive support services offered by a bilingual English/Spanish team.

Members increasingly assume responsibility for business management and each cooperative aims to evolve into a fully independent enterprise.

Members of Si Se Puede! Women's Cooperative
The first cooperative was launched in 2006 and has already gone a long way. Sí Se Puede! Women’s Cooperative - We Can Do It! Inc. provides house cleaning services in all five boroughs of New York City. In the space of nine years it has grown from 15 members to 67, almost all of whom belong to the Latin American community.

One of them is Cristina, a mother of three children from Mexico. She arrived in the United States in 2010 and was unable to find a decent house-cleaning job until she heard about the cooperative. She began to earn US$20/hour and can now rely on steady work on a weekly basis.

Luz is another member of Sí Se Puede! She also feels a difference between her life before and after joining the cooperative. “When I worked alone as a house cleaner, I was often scared about safety or not getting paid my full wage. Then, I earned US$8 per hour, but now I average about US$20 and feel safe and supported by all women in the coop,” she said.

Empowering new migrants

Bransburg is proud of what has been accomplished and stresses the social value of her work. “Before joining the cooperatives, people like Cristina and Luz often worked more than 40 hours a week under difficult working conditions and received a low wage. After joining the cooperatives, they work in a safe environment for 21-40 hours a week, sometimes making up to US$22 an hour,” she said.

Participants are part of a team and they hold themselves and each other accountable for their work. Employment has become an opportunity for human capital development and not just a job.”

They went from being paid employees working for a boss to co-owners of a business, which provides them with a leadership opportunity.

“Participants are part of a team and they hold themselves and each other accountable for their work. Employment has become an opportunity for human capital development and not just a job,” she added.

Because most members are women, joining a cooperative also gave them greater authority and confidence within their families.

“Equality is the theme for this year’s International Day of Cooperatives. The work done by Vanessa Bransburg and her team is a good example of how cooperatives can reduce inequality, especially among recent migrants for whom finding decent work opportunities is often a huge challenge,” says Simel Esim, Head of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) 's Cooperatives Unit.

“Cooperatives help reduce inequality by empowering people and by offering them a dignified and sustainable way to make a living. They can play a major role in poverty reduction. I believe that what has been achieved in Sunset Park can be implemented in many other parts of the world that face similar difficulties with migrants and other vulnerable groups,” she concluded.

ILO and Cooperatives

IILO activities are guided by the international standard on cooperatives, the ILO Recommendation on the Promotion of Cooperatives, 2002 (R.193)

The ILO's Cooperatives Unit (COOP) serves ILO constituents and cooperative organizations in four priority areas:
  • Raising public awareness on cooperatives through evidence-based advocacy and sensitization to cooperative values and principles;
  • Ensuring the competitiveness of cooperatives by developing tools tailored to cooperative stakeholders including management training, audit manuals and assistance programmes;
  • Promoting the inclusion of teaching of cooperative principles and practices at all levels of the national education and training systems; and,
  • Providing advice on cooperative policy and cooperative law, including participatory policy and law making and the impact on cooperatives of taxation policies, labour law, accounting standards, and competition law among others.