Malta is currently in a state of quasi full employment. The de­mand for work is at a high level and the hiring of foreign workers is a necessity to feed the present levels of economic activity. This trend is definitely counter to many States within the European Union that are still experiencing high unemployment levels, especially among young people.

One might be tempted to think that this year’s theme for the International Year of Co-operatives: ‘Coops 4 Decent Work’ is not really relevant to the local state of affairs. However, on looking closer, it is more applicable than ever.

Truth is, the co-operative model of enterprise does not just create employment; it helps create quality ones too. And the reason is glaringly simple: owning your place of work as a team means that you get to decide what’s good for you, what benefits the team wishes to accrue from it and how much to share when surpluses are generated.

Moreover, research suggests that even in co-operatives employing wor­kers, the co-opera­tive ethos helps create a better-quality work relationship, where even the disparity between the highest and the lowest paid is diminished. Re­search has found that there is a much better sense of ownership when working within the realities of democratic enterprises.

Discussion on employment in Malta has always boiled down to the quest to cut the unemployment rate, or increasing the number of places available for workers. Efforts in this sense are naturally laudable. But the discussion needs to develop much further. Now it is not the availability of work that is the big challenge; we need to question to what extent decent work is available.

As many cases tell us, full employment does not necessarily mean decent employment. Some workers are being employed at low wages; there are others who are being cruelly exploited for sheer greed. In some areas, the hope of employment at decent wages has become a mirage.

This is where co-operatives come in. The possibility of work is not limited solely to the possibility of getting hired. One viable option is for people to come together and become masters of their destiny as well as of the wealth they generate.

Full employment does not necessarily mean decent employment

A CICOPA report entitled ‘Cooperatives and Employment: a Global Report’, presented in October last year, found that a whopping 10 per cent of humanity is employed by, or earn their income, from co-operatives.

Why are co-operatives such an attractive proposition? Co-operatives involve people who come together voluntarily to attain their economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. This means that members actively participate in the organisation whey work in, precisely because they jointly own it.

Through this ownership, members are effectively coining together employment and entrepreneurship. This is where the decent work aspect comes in: people who own their place of work would not dream of employing themselves with precarious conditions. Not only could they earn more, but they are empowered to provide a much better and motivated service to the market they operate in.

Effectively, membership in co-operatives can change lives. Rather than just being paid for hired work, co-operative members can earn the wages they themselves set, and get to share in the surplus generated.

Research suggests that cooperative jobs tend to be more sustainable over time. It has also been pro­ven that co-operatives prove to be much more resilient in challenging times. When other business types tend to close down, move elsewhere or keep working conditions at a minimum, co-operatives strive to make it successful because their work depends on it. It is they who decide how to invest, pool resour­ces, harvest their wealth and make sacrifices together: one person, one vote. Co-operatives do not reward financial acumen, but the person and the synergy created by working together with others.

With a healthy co-operative business movement, it is a win-win situation. Co-operatives are a vital tool for a better and fairer distribution of wealth being generated by the economy. Rather than wealth generated by hired work, wealth can also be generated by joint work ownership. The good news is that co-operatives can fit into any area of ethical business activity.

Bolstered by a set of principles that are recognised worldwide, they are founded on values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. In the tradition of their foun­ders, cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibi­lity and caring for others.

Since its inception in 2012, the Malta Co-operative Federation has been very active in exploring potential co-operative opportunities in diverse areas of the economy. With effective hand-holding, training and assistance for registration of start-ups, the federation is currently working on exciting, new and creative projects. Its most recent, freshly-registered member start-up, Sportslink Co-op, which is working in the area of sports tourism, is a case in point.

Throughout the world, more and more people are realising the sheer power of working together for decent work. This year’s International Day of Co-ops is intended to shed light on this fantastic reality. It’s up to all of us to make it happen in Malta as well.

John Mallia is president of the Malta Co-operative Federation.

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