The combined annual turnover of co-operatives in the UK increased from £35.2bn in 2016 to £36.1bn in 2017 while a record 13m people are active members, according to news of the latest annual report put out by Co-operatives UK.
Earlier this month, Michael Pooler reported in the Financial Times, that contract workers, freelancers and consultants are joining or setting up co-operatives – companies owned by their workers or customers, rather than by outside investors. He gives two case histories:
Open Data Services
Kadie Armstrong was a freelance worker who had the opportunity to join a co-operative earlier this year. She joined Open Data Services, a prosperous business of analysts and IT professionals that provides services and develops software promoting open data resources. Her comment: “Being able to voice opinions and help shape the work and working environment without concern for hierarchy and powerplay is just great”. Its co-founder Steven Flower said: “We were all contractors and freelancers beforehand. We wanted to pool our knowledge and resources and form a company”.
Open Data Services is part of a network of co-operatives founded in 2016 called CoTech that sell technology and digital services. CoTech’s members employ some 250 people in co-operatives that have a combined revenue exceeding £10m.
Care and Share Associates
Stephen McKay has worked in social care for many years but since joining Care And Share Associates (CASA), an employee-owned limited company, for the first time has felt properly valued and listened to by his managers. As a staff representative on the company’s consultative body he can put forward views and ideas from the staff to joint meetings with the board, and hold them to account.
Despite restraints on funding for the care sector, Mr McKay says he is paid better than counterparts at many other private sector companies or charities, including support workers from other organisations who work in the same care home. He earns £8.35 per hour, compared to the national minimum wage of £7.83 for over-25s. Co-operatives are not insulated from difficult decisions. When managing director Sharon Lowrie took over earlier this year Casa was losing money. Redundancies were made and the company is now back in profit.
Michael Pooler writes: “A longstanding barrier to becoming a co-operative has been the ability to raise capital, whether for big investment projects or to use in times of financial distress. One way around this that has taken off in recent years is community shares”. His reference to community shares, which local service users or customers can buy, as a recent development is surprising – but perhaps this is just a change of name – shares in co-operatives have been sold for many years.
He comments that in an age of populism fuelled by discontent over economic inequality and the perceived failures of globalisation, those in favour of co-ops say they offer a more inclusive way of doing business and fairer distribution of wealth.