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Cooperatives and trade unions from the North and the South join to promote decent work

They range from small-scale to multi-million dollar businesses across the globe, employ some 100 million women and men and have more than 800 million individual members. Cooperatives play an important role in integrating unprotected workers in the informal economy into mainstream economic life. On this International Day of Cooperatives, cooperative enterprises worldwide make fair globalization a reality. Here are some examples of recent ILO activities aimed at creating decent jobs and reducing poverty around the globe.

Article | 05 July 2004

GENEVA (ILO Online) – When Maate Sulait isn't shining shoes, he has his sights set on realizing the UN's Millenium Development Goal to fight poverty, gain the respect of local authorities and obtain better rights and entitlements.

Maate is one of a host of workers in so-called "cooperatives" who do everything from shining shoes to cutting hair and selling goods. And along the way, they are now benefiting from a collaborative international effort that reaches out to cooperative members by changing the mindsets of trade unions and cooperative leaders.

The initiative, known as SYNDICOOP, was developed by the ILO's Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV) and its Cooperative Branch in Geneva as a joint effort of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the ILO. Begun in 2002, the effort focused first on workers in the informal economy in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, with Kenya joining more recently.

"We have been a partner of the ILO-SYNDICOOP project since its inception and our members have benefited from the project's revolving loan fund to expand the business with new products and increased their income", says Mr. Sulait, who is a member of the Uganda Shoe Shiners' Cooperative. "Our voice is now heard and respected by the local municipal authorities to get better treatment in terms of rights and entitlements."

An invisible economy

The informal economy is often referred to as the "invisible" or "underground" economy. Yet in East Africa, as elsewhere in the region, informal activities are far from being invisible. Informal workers sell newspapers, fruit, watches or whatever else they think will generate income. They offer to shine the shoes or cut the hair of office workers, store clerks and tourists.

Their informality consists not of invisibility but the lack of connection to the formal structures of society, those of both government and civil society. Says Hassan Raha of the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania, "The ILO-SYNDICOOP Project is a wake-up call to our respective governments to support the majority of the poor who are daily struggling in the informal economy to make ends meet".

SYNDICOOP brings together representations from associations of trade unions and cooperatives, governments and the leaders of small groups of informal economy workers. In Tanzania, the national steering committee includes the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania, Tanzania Federation of Cooperatives, Savings and Credit Cooperative Union, the government and individual informal economy groups.

An important first step has involved assisting cooperative and trade union leaders to think about strategies to adapt their operations to organize informal economy workers. In each country, ten cooperative, trade union and informal economy group leaders has been in trained in these issues. In addition, each national steering committee has selected a number of informal economy groups to work with directly. By May 2004, there were 12 such groups in Uganda, seven in Tanzania and five in Rwanda.

A key aspect of the project is to ensure that groups gain assistance in improving working conditions and generating income. To this end, each national committee has established a revolving loan fund for member groups. In Rwanda, the project has supported a group of women waste collectors and recyclers. These women have relied on this activity to generate income after their husbands were killed in the genocide.

"The project has strengthened the organization of the poor women who are working in the informal economy in Rwanda. Collecting the garbage and recycling it for environment-friendly use is the struggle of our members. The ILO-SYNDICOOP project contributes to the improvement of our working conditions through training and access to micro credit under the Revolving Loan Fund", explains Florida Mukarubuga from the AMIZERO Women's Association, Rwanda.

Her organisation, AMIZERO, has received advice on working conditions – which can be hazardous given the nature of their activity – and will use credit to purchase supplies and tools. The main recycling activity involves collecting household waste, either from public bins or scattered heaps. This waste, including potato and banana peels, are dried and made into briquettes for cooking. The briquettes, which are sold to households, are cheaper than charcoal and help to reduce the cutting of trees around the city.

Dealing with waste is hazardous, so the project is working on effective training and the use of protective gear to protect the working conditions of these women and the removal of their children from these activities.

Twinning cooperatives from the North and the South

Another example for concrete action is a cooperative development project in Orissa, India, financed by the Federation of MIGROS Cooperatives of Switzerland and technically supervised by the INDISCO Programme of the ILO's Cooperative Branch. The project follows the signing of a partnership agreement between the ILO and the ICA (International Cooperative Alliance) to promote decent work and reduce poverty through cooperatives in February 2004.

It is also a response to ILO Director-General Juan Somavia's call at the ICA General Assembly held in September 2003 in Oslo to promote twinning arrangements between cooperatives of the North and the South: "Would it be a dream to think that in the future every cooperative of developed countries would have a partnership with a developing world cooperative? That would create the most impressive global network of enterprise-to-enterprise cooperation."

The MIGROS-funded project will assist 3,000 tribal families in 30 villages in Orissa, India in creating decent jobs and strengthening their community organizations. In this twinning exercise, the ILO plays the role of a facilitator, giving full responsibility to the tribal communities to manage their development with technical advice from the ILO.

ILO and ICA have been working together since the 1920s to promote cooperatives, and collaborated in the adoption of ILO Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives adopted by the International Labour Conference in June 2002. The ILO-ICA partnership will focus on the implementation of Recommendation 193 at the national level.

The new partnership will also seek to address the UN Millennium Development Goals, including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, improving maternal health a nd reducing child mortality, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, environmental sustainability and the development of global partnerships for development.

Another goal of the initiative is to have wider impact on the policy process by providing a direct channel between informal economy groups and poverty reduction strategies (PRSP process).

Under the terms of the partnership, ILO and ICA will jointly organize a funding campaign among major multi-bilateral donors and other development partners to finance the activities foreseen under their "Common Cooperative Agenda".

For more information, please contact the ILO's Cooperative Branch,; the ILO's Bureau for Workers' Activities,, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), or the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU),