Cooperative mo(ve)ment

A message from Maurice about the cooperative movement.

The Mondragon cooperative HQ in the Basque Country

To mark Cooperatives Fortnight (22 June – 5 July 2020) we have released a podcast interview with Tiziana O’Hara of Cooperative Alternatives, and Ellie Perrin, who is writing a PhD thesis on the cooperative movement in Northern Ireland. Search for The CombOver podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or the other platforms, and subscribe to hear this and the rest of the series.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that The Combination is supportive of the cooperative movement – not least those of you who watched our short film about the history of coops, ‘The Zirimiri’. So it was a pleasure to talk to two well informed activists about workers’ cooperatives in Northern Ireland – and when lockdown ends, I intend to get out and make a film on the subject.

But recently, I came across another cooperative, this one farther from home, at least geographically speaking – though are those who make the very clothes on your back really all that remote?

Oporajeo is a worker-owned cooperative in the garment sector in Bangladesh, launched by survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster of April 24, 2013, to create good jobs in safe conditions in an otherwise precarious industry. They have continued to work ever since, ensuring the members get a decent wage and receive an equal share in any profits generated.

Their UK partners, and a key outlet for Oporajeo’s products, are No Sweat, a London-based organisation dedicated to combatting the use of sweat-shops. Visit their website here to find out more about them. And visit the page about their partners to find out more about Oporajeo, here.

It is an inspiring example of the sort of democratically owned companies we could help build if we had the political will to do so. But Oporajeo, like so many in this industry across the global south, are facing terrible headwinds in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Clean Clothes Campaign have documented cases of corporations, many of whom have their key outlets on our high streets here in Ireland and the UK, or in Europe and America, cancelling orders, in some cases even after production has commenced. The garment industry in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Guatemala and elsewhere has been hit hard, with many workers being sent home without pay – and this in countries where there is little or no support from the public purse, and where there are a growing number of Covid-29 cases, and little testing.

Oporajeo, I understand, has cautiously reopened its factory after a period of lockdown during which they managed, somehow, not only to survive, but to make PPE for local health workers, and distribute thousands of meals to families in their neighbourhood.

The No Sweat team are hoping they will be able to pick up orders again soon. What can we do? Keep an eye out for developments on their website; follow them on social media (@No_Sweat), buy some T-Shirts if you can.

And learn about, and spread the word about, these sorts of people-powered, democratic alternatives to the dominance of the crank economy. We have to keep talking about these initiatives, telling each other about them, passing on details, reminding people that coops exist, that they work – think of Mondragon, with its tens of thousands of owner-workers and decades of success. Contrary to what we’ve repeatedly been told, there is an alternative.

So tell us more. Have you any other examples like Oporajeo? Or like any of the workers’ coops listed by Cooperative Alternatives or TradeMark here closer to home? Tell us, tell me. Tell a neighbour, a friend. If we keep doing that, then it’s just possible that eventually, like the fine rain of the Basque country – the Zirimiri – we will, all of a sudden, discover the idea of the democratic economy has soaked right in.

Maurice Macartney

27 June 2020