When you point your finger, your other fingers point back to you

I have spent twenty four hours with colleagues and children working in co-operative schools and it has been a wonderful experience.

To summarise what co-operative values mean, on my last leg at Beaufort Co-operative Academy near Gloucester, I asked the one hundred or so people present to point at the headteacher. That’s probably what it feels like most days as a head, or as any teacher, but my point was to do more than this – it was to share an old saying from co-operatives in Bulgaria:

When you point your finger at someone else, your other fingers point back to you.

The values of co-operation are rooted in self help and mutual aid, meaning that you can look to others to help you. But only if you also take responsibility to help yourself.

Hired: precarious work and the co-operative alternative

What’s work like for you?

A book out this month is an eye-opener on what work is like for the growing number of people who are self-employed, in agency work or on zero hour contracts. Hired is in a long tradition of writers and journalists looking to tell the story of people typically unheard, by going undercover. The author James Bloodworth worked in Rugeley, Blackpool, South Wales and London in low wage roles from picking for Amazon and working in social care to telephone marketing at an insurance call centre.

9781786490148The picture that emerges of low-wage Britain is grim – full of risk, poor for health and open to exploitation. “I hate it, I hate it here” one colleague hissed through chipped teeth.

Organising work through agencies means that those who in name are self-employed and free, in reality are subject to daily abuses of power and daily intrusions of their freedom.  When asking for a copy of his contract, the author was told that a contract did not exist because he was on a zero-hours contract. “If you had the temerity to ask why you had not been paid your full wages that week” he writes “they would talk to you as if you were something they had scraped off the bottom of their shoe.” 

The same abuses operate in housing, with a rising class of rapacious rentiers – unscrupulous landlords, sometimes first- or second-generation migrants themselves. They earn your trust until you are comfortably placed and then up the ante, demanding ever more money for rent and deposits.

What are the alternatives? As ever, alongside policy change, the practical hope comes from trade unions and potentially co-operatives. One colleague quoted in the book, Steve, says of trade unions: “I remember when I were seventeen. I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m not interested. What’s the point in giving them an extra £2 a week?’ Ten, fifteen years later, it’s like, they’re worth their weight in gold, they really are.”

Work for me brings me today to Cardiff, where we are holding a roundtable courtesy of the Wales Co-operative Centre, with trade unions and co-operatives to explore the potential of co-operative solutions.

Our report ‘Working Together: Trade Union and Co-operative Innovations for Precarious Work’ calls for increased protection for those operating in the so-called gig economy.

“Not only do they have almost no security, but while the average employed worker is losing out year by year in real terms, the self-employed are doing even worse, earning less each year in cash terms,” said co-author Alex Bird. “1.7 million of those in precarious employment are earning less than the national minimum wage, with no real enforcement of the law, and the self-employed are not even covered by the existing legislation.”

The report, commissioned by Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative College, and drawing on work supported by the Network for Social Change, Wales Co-operative Centre and the Institute for Solidarity Economics, identifies co-operative solutions as a way of ensuring a fair deal for workers in an expanding gig economy. It is a follow-up to the landmark report of two years ago – Not Alone by Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and Philip Ross.

One of the inspirations for action in the UK is Belgium-based SMart – originally the ‘mutual society for artists’. This enables precarious workers operating in the freelance sector to obtain a range of welfare benefits – including unemployment benefit. SMart also provides its 70,000 plus members with tax support and advice. Sarah de Heusch Ribassin, Project Officer for the Development Strategy Unit at Smart, who spoke at last year’s Co-op Congress says: “many of those who were self-employed found the legislation around taxes to be so complex and were afraid to do things wrong. SMart offered an alternative that meant they no longer had to worry about making errors that would affect their income.” 

Working Together also identifies Indycube as a possible blueprint for how partnerships between trade union and co-operatives can flourish. Working with the trade union Community, Indycube is a rapidly growing network for freelancers and the self-employed and offers access to workspace in more than 30 locations, predominantly across Wales. One of the latest, in Rhyl, North Wales, opens on April 18th, in partnership with WCVA.

working-togther001_with-shapes_crop-600x250Not all those who are self-employed are in precarious work, by any means. There are also effective solutions for professionals, such as the work of the member-owned IPSE. Everyone can benefit from some services that you can’t get easily on your own, and where you want a trusted provider to turn to in need.

As Mark Hooper, the inspiring founder of Indycube puts it – if you work for yourself, but don’t want to work by yourself – then a co-operative can be good for you.

Cats, dogs, co-ops, Brexit and breakfast.

Over the weekend, I was with a wonderful gathering of staff and Board directors across the UK’s co-operative retailers. It was our annual Co-operative Retail Conference.

The photos are now up online of many of the people who participated. But there are a few four-legged delegates that we have had over the years and this year was no exception.

Newt is a cat who prompted some instant teamwork at the event, as she escaped her car and left Jane Cameron, one of the most experienced co-op housing specialists, searching with others across the surrounding lands. Radstock Co-op offered a room for the night for Jane and her partner, so the search could go on and eventually, underneath another car on the other side of the hotel, Newt showed herself and let herself be led to the warmth and comfort of a Co-operatives UK conference.

On stage, there was one slip from a speaker that I thought could be a hopeful meme to spread – at least for those concerned with Brexit. The speaker referred to ‘Breakfast’ instead of ‘Brexit’.

Now I understand that the substance of our planned exit from the EU is totally serious, but all too often the endless debates of the day are not. They can be fanciful, ideological, fantastical.

So the next time I hear something that sounds crazy on Brexit, I am going to think of it in my mind as Breakfast.

Breakfast Britain…? Breakfast Blues…?

Life after Breakfast.

It doesn’t sound so bad.