Cooperatives as key partners for the provision of care services

04 June 2024 

Care is a universal need, while care provision is a fast-growing sector of the economy. Care workers are fundamental to our society, but they also face some of the most difficult working conditions and a lack of standard job expectations. The high prevalence of undeclared and informal care deprives a significant number of caregivers of guarantees and rights associated with formal employment and disproportionately affects women. Access to quality and affordable care services is not guaranteed for everyone, exacerbating social exclusion, discrimination and precarity of vulnerable people.

In this context, cooperatives have been emerging as innovative and attractive providers of quality care, especially in situations where other providers, such as public authorities or private actors, cannot satisfy the demand. The pioneering social cooperative movement emerged in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, as a reaction to insufficient care services and funding crisis. Since then, the cooperative contribution to care has grown significantly, spanning multiple countries worldwide, meeting the high demand and addressing various challenges in the sector.

Today cooperatives across the globe are providing all types of care services to children, adults and elderly including home care, socio-educational support, support with social emergencies, nurseries, residential and day centers, support for children and young people in foster care, re-habilitation of psychiatric patients, home care for people with disabilities and more.

Because they are worker-owned and managed, either exclusively or alongside other stakeholders, job quality is integral to the cooperative’s objectives and, thus, prioritised in workplace practices. Characterised by higher job satisfaction and retention, work-life balance and investment in staff training, cooperatives offer a legal and stable employment opportunity in a sector where informal and undeclared work is prevalent.

Most of the care workers are women and women are overrepresented among the undeclared care givers, which also means that women suffer disproportionately from the poor working conditions and lack of protection. Across the globe, cooperatives have shown that they can contribute in various ways by transforming undeclared care activities into legally protected work, and in this way empowering women and contribution to their economic and social inclusion, which is particularly relevant for immigrant care givers.

Because cooperatives reinvest the profits internally, cooperatives are sustainable and resilient care providers, ensuring affordable and uninterrupted care services. They address diverse socio-economic inequalities associated with care and make it available even to the most disadvantaged citizens and those located in rural and remote areas. They often include care recipients, their family members, public authorities and other stakeholders alongside the care workers in their governance structure. This in turn increases the quality and effectiveness of the service provided as it takes into account multiple perspectives of the complex nature of care provisioning.

Cooperatives have time-tested answers to care needs through stakeholder engagement. They present a model where caregivers are being taken care of as well which normally is not the case, therefore is a cycle that improves the quality of life for everyone involved. Thus, through partnerships with the cooperative movement, we call governments to adopt the following measures:

  • promote and support integrated policies and investments into cooperative provision of care as a pathway to both providing decent work and essential care services, especially for women enabling them to enter the workforce and increase their productivity
  • enable legal conditions for the creation and development of care cooperatives
  • support cooperatives in accessing government funded care programs where available
  • invest in the development of care cooperative movements that engage community stakeholders in the development of local care cooperatives to ensure socially and culturally appropriate care is provided to communities
  • support cooperatives as key actors providing care in a formal environment, which can transform informal and self-organised care solutions into legal, stable and democratic entrepreneurial entities run by the caregivers them-selves, in line with the ILO’s Recommendation 204 concerning the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy
  • while cooperatives are private and autonomous enterprises, in many countries they regularly partner with public authorities on care service provision, in particular through public procurements. Although it constitutes an important recognition, public procurement should not be the only possible form of collaboration between public administration and cooperatives in the care sector. A shift towards a more integrated partnership model, based on a joint analysis of community needs and long-term planning of services, is encouraged.
  • a significant increase in public investment is needed to address current challenges and prepare for future ones, in particular those raised by the ageing population and potential future pandemics. Investment is key in the social infrastructure for care, upskilling and reskilling of care workers, and in the green and digital transition of the care sector.
  • care services are increasingly being provided through digital platforms; in this context, platform cooperatives should be supported as a quality employment model for platform care workers. Moreover, the technological innovation and development of new solutions in the care sector is important and must be supported through policy and financial instruments. It is crucial that digitalisation and technological innovation are inclusive and accessible for even the most fragile and disadvantaged people.

Did you know?

  • In Italy, the pioneer of engaging cooperatives in care, more than 14 000 cooperatives provide care services to 5 million people, employing 400 000 workers. The annual turnover of the sector exceeds 9 billion EUR
  • In Japan, almost 70% of worker cooperatives are engaged in the provision of care (elderly care, childcare, care/support for people/children with disabilities, etc.)
  • CICOPA’s Spanish member, COCETA, represents approximately 1 000 cooperatives providing care services: 500 residential and day centers and 500 more cooperatives providing home care. They directly employ 35 000 people and provide care to 67 000 persons
  • BCCM (Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals) has recently received an A$7 million grant from the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care to implement the “Care Together Program” in order to create and strengthen care cooperatives as a solution to the challenges Australia’s care sector is facing especially in markets where service delivery is failing including regional, remote and rural communities
  • In Sweden, around 10% of childcare is provided by cooperatives. While some of them are managed by parents, others are worker cooperatives or multistakeholder cooperatives

You can find here some inspirational examples of cooperatives providing care services across the globe.