Work Together (Archive)

Worker cooperatives build a stronger economy: lessons from Zambia

The world celebrated the International Day of Cooperatives on 4th July 2015. It should be known that creating a strong economy implies doing more than just asking for jobs or servicing people in municipalities and government departments but giving ownership to the communities within their boundaries is the most ideal situation. Empowerment comes when people gain control over a significant piece of their life and this becomes a vehicle to realizing entitlement to control and give power in other areas.

6 July 2015

By Phahlani Moyo

Since cooperatives are owned and democratically controlled by their members, empowerment is integral to membership. Modern cooperativism arrived in Africa like Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Zambia during the colonial period as a means of consolidating and organizing British rule.

At that time, black Africans were not allowed to be members of official cooperatives but merely became farm labourers. But what is clear is that even before the British rule came, there existed some form traditional cooperation where people worked together during hunting errands, funerals, weddings and working together on farmlands and it is still practiced in many African cultures. Cooperatives are better than working alone during Harambee in Kenya, Ujuma in Tanzania and Humanism in Zambia where part and parcel to help newly independent states forge an identity different from their colonial masters. This dates back over the course of the transition to independence where the cooperative ideology became a pillar of people coming together to fight for independence and as a model of African socialism in securing economic independence and political autonomy. But these ideologies never really worked to enhance economic independence as the early 1990s saw the collapse of socialism and a new era of economic liberalisation came into force.

The working class and ordinary people in society must realize their potential and make fundamental decisions on the economic front. Each day that comes people are facing various hardships and the poverty levels continue to grow in many communities. For over fifty years now the poor and the middleclass face many challenges of inequality, hunger, unemployment and poor infrastructure has continued to grow.
What should be our economic and political agenda? Do we begin to fight for a progressive economic agenda that create jobs, raises wages, protect the environment and provides health care for all, empower citizens and income generation? How prepared are the poor and middleclass to take up the political and economic power in order to create a just world?

Well as a way of responding, there is need to diversify to other forms of cooperatives other than historical agricultural cooperatives that comprise the bulk of the cooperative movement in Zambia. There is a need for establishing worker cooperatives, municipal cooperatives, banking cooperatives, insurance cooperatives and housing cooperatives in order to create more owners especially in communities as ownership builds wealth and cooperative ownership is the alternative to a reliance on low-paying retail and service industry jobs say hotels. There is need to envision more worker cooperatives of artisans, consultants and professionals that can establish their own cooperative businesses. By definition a worker cooperative is a democratically managed business that is owned and controlled by the workers. The cooperative form of organization allows ordinary people to combine their energy, capital; talents and skills to gain steady employment and income, participate in the management of their business and share the profits based patronage.

The philosophy of bringing cooperatives to the door-steps is to make local government to top on agenda of managing the country’s social and economic affairs through a decentralized system of governance. We need a country for worker-owned cooperatives by creating an Institute for Cooperative Development and infrastructure within the council set-up to create an investment fund that would go to providing technical assistance to individuals interested in the ideals of cooperatives and civil works improvement. The councils can go further to create a revolving loan fund that would support start-up cooperatives and SMEs at lower interest rates compared to the current bank rates.

For sure cooperatives can address community alarming rates of income inequality by ensuring higher wages and salaries than traditional jobs available on the current labour market. There are global examples of taken over companies now in the hands of workers like the New Era Windows on Chicago’s southwest side is the city’s most well-known example of a cooperative. In 2012, four years after the CEO abruptly shut down the company, employees banded together to create a cooperative they now own In addition to higher-paying jobs, cooperatives provide a pathway for young people, local residents, women and even ex-offenders to become owners. This increases household income and decreases unemployment and poverty. This also creates stable, thriving communities and a stronger tax base for our city’s economy within its borders. This approach can help many African countries to embrace cooperatives to redeem the declining economy.

Phahlani Moyo is Zambian researcher, author of several books on cooperatives, including “The Other side of The Cooperative Economy: Worker Cooperative Ideal for Industrialization and Localization” .

*Caption: ICRISAT-Lilongwe and the Eastern Province Farmers’ Cooperative Ltd
(EPFC) in Kabunda village to solicit farmers’ opinion on a groundnut shelling machine