At a time of heartache, it is still possible and natural to be heartened by those around us. Italy has been at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the responses I hear from my calls and contact with co-operators there add up to a moving and meaningful story to share.
Co-operation is written into the constitution of Italy. Article 45 of the Constitution of 1948 states specifically that the Republic recognises the benefits of co-operatives operating for mutual benefit, free from private speculation. It goes on to prescribe that Italian law should assist and promote the development of co-ops and ensure their integrity.
It is not the only country to write co-ops into the national constitution, although it is less common in Europe. Ifigeneia Douvitsa teaches in the School of Law at Democritus University of Thrace, Greece. She has trawled through constitutions worldwide and concludes that around 1 out of 3 national constitutions internationally refer explicitly to co-ops.
(The first, by the way, in the research she has sent me was the 1917 constitution of Mexico, a product of the 1910 revolution and a beacon of radical intent, including social and economic rights and the protection of labour rights and working conditions.)
In Italy around ten per cent of the economy (gross domestic product) is organised through co-operatives, with around eleven per cent of the workforce employed by co-ops, including many large-scale worker co-ops of course.
The response of co-ops in Italy to the health, social and economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to draw on their values, for sure, but also to find ways to co-operate between co-operatives.
The retail co-ops, for example, have seen revenues increase as essential services. Yes, they have faced increased costs too, but their decision was to gift the proceeds, millions of euros, in support of Italian public hospitals and community co-operatives that are playing a crucial role in supporting local communities.
In Lombardy, one of the regions worst affected, my friend Stefania Marcone tells me that through her national co-operative alliance, Legacoop (working alongside Confcooperative and AGCI) there is support for worker co-ops of cleaners switching to working in hospitals, social co-operatives delivering food and taxi co-operatives providing free transport for people who are over 65.
With support from the wider sector, twelve co-ops have come together to start production of 400,000 face masks per day, with a design I am told is innovative in being able to be re-used up to 100 times. Design of course is another strong sector for Italian co-ops in pre-crisis times, bringing together small firms and connecting to financial co-operatives to be able to compete at an international level.
In small villages, community co-operatives like the “Biccari” community cooperative, in the province of Foggia have turned on a sixpence to provide a local home delivery service for those who need it.
This solidarity is international too. The Bulgarian retail co-operatives were able to respond to a national shortage of disinfectants and cleaning detergents, because Coop Italy responded with deliveries, despite themselves being in the most critical situation with challenging and complex logistics.
And the international solidarity comes back too, like a boomerang. The outstanding freelancer co-op SMART, who I have written about before in supporting members in crisis, has launched a Plan Corona to sustain freelancers who have lost their jobs due to the virus. Starting in Belgium and France, it is now being extended to Italy.
Of course there are other international examples that are outstanding in terms of co-operative action – as no doubt can be found in other sectors, of civil society, social enterprise and wider corporate action. After all, this is not a competition. Co-ops don’t claim to be better than others on values – they simply claim to live up to their values and so often when I look, I find that to be true.
Here are examples that I have come across that I appreciate:
- French co-operative banks around Paris have opened up lines of credit worth €100 million for hospitals and healthcare centres.
- German co-operative banks have led on increasing the limit for contactless payment for customers to 50 euros – practical and helpful.
- In Spain, Lionel Messi helped to lead a 70% pay cut by players at FC Barcelona, the iconic football co-op, in order to ensure that lower-paid workers receive full pay and protection from being laid off.
- Desjardins in Canada has announced a discount for car insurance customers who are driving less in a lock-down.
- Irish credit unions have remained open when bank branches have closed, offering new emergency loans.
- Co-op insurers in Sweden have placed investments of US$235 million in new bonds to finance public health actions not just in the Baltic region but worldwide. Ylva Wessén, CEO, promises that “Folksam Group is actively seeking investment opportunities that alleviate the social and economic consequences of the coronavirus.”
In the UK, Nick Crofts, President of the Co-op Group has commented that:
“co-ops have consistently set an example that other businesses and even the Government have subsequently followed. It was Co-op Food stores that were the first to promise help to food banks struggling because of panic buying. Co-op Academies were the first to announce that no child should go hungry because schools were closed.
In Wales, co-op taxi drivers are offering free rides to key workers. And right here in Liverpool a co-op bakery is baking fresh bread for food banks and delivering pies to ambulance workers. I know that co-operators are up to this challenge and that our co-operative movement anchored in the communities that we serve will always back those who need it most.”
You can read about new examples here and abroad, including recent posts on USA, India and Brazil via Co-op News, in Europe from Co-ops Europe and more widely from the ILO. Co-ops UK is collecting evidence from our members on the impact and the response too so it is worth signing up to receive our newsletter too, or checking out our latest specialist advice.
In Italy, as the prospects of loosening lock-down brighten, the cultural co-ops across the country are promising a programme of public engagement, to rebuild the country.
I had the opportunity to meet the President of Legacoop, Mauro Lusetti, on a brilliantly informative trip to Bologna two years ago. The example he has set in Italy has been immense. This is how he puts it – what Italy has got right:
“We are normal people, who try every day with passion, courage and competence to do their duty, to do their job.
We are women and men cooperators who are in places of suffering alongside doctors and nurses, to keep hospitals clean, and to operate, from kitchens to thermal power plants. We are women and men who try to make essential services work in warehouses in the streets, in supermarkets, in offices; we are the ones who in social cooperation try in every way to keep assistance alive for all the people who were fragile before the Coronavirus and today they are even more so.
Continuing to be women and men cooperators , asking to continue working and being able to do so in safety is for us the only way we know of thinking about our future and that of our community.
The infection will end and as we work every day we try to imagine how to face the world that will come, so that no sacrifice has been in vain.”