Our society is suffering from inequalities that blocks sustainable development. One of the main ones is gender inequality.
According to United Nations data, women in the developing countries work 13% longer than men, with the aggravating fact that 63% of their work is unpaid domestic work: care, food, cleaning, etc. The situation is similar in developed countries. Women also work more and 64% is unpaid work.
Regarding paid work, the presence of women in the world is higher in jobs with lower qualifications and greater precariousness. Between 70 and 80 % of domestic work is female, while this share is reduced to 32% in information technology and communication activities.
The lower economic autonomy of women, as a result of their difficulties on accessing jobs in the same conditions as men, is reproduced in all areas of human activity. Only 22% of parliamentarians, 18% of cabinet members and 19% of Supreme Court members are women.
Only 5% of the unions directors are women. In the field of large corporations, where economic power resides, the situation is no better. Only 4% of those who hold the position of CEO are women; half of the big companies of communication technologies do not have nor a woman in its directories .
These are just some indicators of inequality that must be overcome as a necessary condition for development and peace.
The United Nations has organized four world conferences on women since 1975. During the last Word Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) was adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, where it is recognized that “Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace”.
In sum, what is at issue is access to power by women in all spheres.
As the platform adopted by 189 countries adds “this means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities.”
Cooperatives and democratization of economic power
If we seek to share power, the first step is to democratize it. This is where the convergence of the struggle for women’s rights and the struggle for economic democracy is necessary.
The solution to gender inequality can not be limited to women scaling positions in an unequal system. From the absurd: increasing only the participation of women in Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires would certainly be a meager result in terms of social equity.
Gender equality will be the result of the organization of women to challenge their spaces. This was demonstrated by the women in Iceland in that paradigmatic strike of October 1975 which was the basis for the conformation of one of the most egalitarian societies in this regard.
This is also demonstrated by the women’s movement #NiUnaMenos in Argentina: from the mobilization and militancy in the defense of emblematic cases of discrimination have managed to put the issue of gender violence in the public agenda, stripping the mechanisms of patriarchy in judicial level and in the security forces.
Similarly, changing the economy to guarantee the rights of women requires that they organize to compete for economic power.
At the global level, women represent 70% of purchases . If the consumer were the sovereign, women would control the economy. Obviously, this is not so. In an oligopoly-controlled economy, demand is manipulated and subjected to capital appreciation needs.
One answer to this is the organization of women as consumers. For example, If the participation of consumer cooperatives and other companies in the solidarity economy in the retail distribution of goods and services is expanded, and if this is carried out by women aware of their violated rights, it will be in a position to dispute from a gender perspective what to consume and how to produce. Beginning to fight against the call “pink tax” – what women pay extra for the fact of being women, especially in toiletries, but not only –, going forward with the promotion of responsible consumption with a gender perspective, and culminating with the economic capacity to fight against the entrepreneurial behaviors that give grounds to the inequality.
If what we want is women to participate in the production of habitat, nothing better than strengthening housing cooperatives and that women, from democracy, compete this sector to the concentrated economy.
It is the same reasoning regarding the financial system. It is not enough to claim access to credit controlled by international banks. The way is the organization of credit institutions of solidarity matrix, where women can make their voice heard according to their needs.
In short, if the popular organization is the tool to democratize power, organizing solidarity economy enterprises it is the tool to democratize economic power in favor of women.
This is also part of the Beijing Platform, which proposes the promotion of cooperatives within the strategic objectives of “facilitate women’s equal access to resources, employment, markets and trade”, and “strengthen women’s economic capacity and commercial networks”. An special mention is made in this Declaration to credit unions, labor and agricultural cooperatives.
It has also been specifically recognized by the ILO: “The cooperative model offers women, particularly but not exclusively those in rural areas, in the informal economy and on low incomes, important opportunities for employment, enhanced livelihoods and access to productive resources and services” .
However, this will be the case only if cooperatives effectively favor women’s participation and do not end up reproducing the patriarchal features of the society in which they are registered.
As value-oriented companies they have an obligation to do so. Nothing less than the First Cooperative Principle says that “Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination”.
Co-operatives have been pioneers in this respect since the first in Rochdale, which recognized the female vote in 1844, when in the field of politics it had not yet been won.
However, neither history nor stated principles reach out if democracy is not exercised. In order to do so, several requirements are necessary.
In the first place it is necessary that the woman is associated with the cooperative. If only the man is a partner (for example in savings and credit cooperatives, housing or agriculture) then the woman is not present, for more “family integration” efforts are made. Avoiding this requires engaging in the discussion on gender equity at the household level. If the man is the one who rules in the home and the woman’s participation is mediated by him, little progress can be made.
In second place, it is necessary for women to have equal conditions for access to information and for co-operative education. Since the beginning, co-operativism has understood the importance of education as a democratizing tool, so the fifth principle are required to ensure the education of its members.
Thirdly, women should be organized within each co-operative, federation or confederation, to denounce asymmetries and promote necessary changes. To this end, there must be specific instances of participation – such as Gender Committees – that link their objectives to the overall agenda of the struggle for women’s rights.
The basis for building a strong alliance between the democratization of the economy and the rights of women should be the gender committees of the cooperative movement.
They are the ones who are able to show the inequalities within the cooperative movement, both in terms of political leadership and work organization, and to articulate these objectives with the different initiatives in each of the territories.
The struggle for equality in cooperatives can not be disregarded in the society in which they are registered, nor can society dispense with cooperatives to build equality within it. The nexus is the organization of women in each cooperative in dialogue with the rest of the organizations in each territory.
Co-operatives and working conditions
Most of State intervention on women’s rights in the economic sphere is aimed at creating appropriate conditions for the defense of their rights as workers: equal treatment and remuneration, maternity protection, protection against violence, etc.
Much progress has been made in this regard, but much is still pending. For example, in the case of licenses, which are often insufficient and generally assume that women are solely responsible for care.
It is interesting the experience of the Nordic countries where there are parental licenses, which are the licenses that are not associated with the birth but with the upbringing, up to two years period and that can alternatively take the mothers or fathers.
Co-operatives can and must advance on these issues, beyond the legislation requirements: our values demand it. The full incorporation of women should be one of the keys to show a successful business model, the “preferred by the people”, in terms of the Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade of the International Cooperative Alliance.
In this sense, the initiative of the Co-operative Business Group Coomeva of Colombia is very interesting. This co-operative is the first company in its country that adheres to the Equal Employment Equality Seal, granted by the Ministry of Labor in the framework of its Certification Program of the Gender Equality Management System (SGIG), with the technical support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
It is an excellent way to work for the cultural transformation of the business that demands gender equality, while at the same time it is possible to give visibility to the process in the framework of a program with international support. Co-operatives must lead these initiatives around the world.
On the other hand, co-operatives are in a position to add a new dimension to this debate. It is not only about promoting wage-earning relationships on the basis of equity: decent working relationships can be built from women’s direct control over working conditions.
In worker co-operatives, the partners are the ones who decide the work conditions, including remuneration systems, licenses, schedules, occupational safety, etc. The woman who wants to expand her rights can do so building collectively and democratically a company that suits her needs and recognizes her rights.
To moderate the capital to take gender into account is not the only way for women: they can displace it from the command post.
Of course, for this, co-operatives must have tools to facilitate their constitution and consolidation, such as financing and technical assistance. Perhaps a new right for women could arise: the right to access the necessary conditions to organize their own enterprise, in equity and without exploitation relations.
Within the framework of the new wave of solidarity economy observed in the world (a result of the search for alternatives to generate income when the labor market is impotent to incorporate broad sectors of society) it is recorded that much of that emergent economy is composed of women who develop associative strategies, which are complementary and compatible with their tasks of caring for their families.
In Bolivia, for example, women’s participation in self-generated economic activities exceeds that of men: 70% of employed women and 56% of employed men worked in 2011 in family and small-scale units. Taking advantage of this experience, with the backing of specific public policies, it can be a way to build business units where gender perspective is favored in terms of the construction of equitable working conditions and compatible with the need to attend to the tasks of care, which are co-responsibility of both genders.
Co-operatives and cultural battle
But perhaps the main contribution that the co-operative movement can make is in terms of cultural battle. The advertising machine at the service of concentrated capital is perhaps one of the main reproducers of gender stereotypes that condemn women to a place of submission.
Women who clean toilets while men ride routes in their high-end cars, women treated as “princesses” thanks to a dishwashing detergent that gives them soft hands when finished washing dishes, women who must appeal to a soup to influence in the arbitrary decisions of the “man of the house”. All this are examples we see daily in the mass media and are strictly linked to gender violence: when you promote a servile attitude based on gender stereotypes you are promoting relationships of submission and not equity.
This subordinate role of women tarnishes most of the interpersonal relationships and it conditions their ability to progress, starting with the choice of their professional training.
The ILO World Salary Report for 2015 showed that there is a wage gap in favor of men in all countries, and that a substantive part of it is not explained by any objective reason (such as qualification or background). It’s just discrimination. In Argentina the wage gap in favor of men is 27%, half of which is not based on any objective reason. In Brazil, men earn 24% more, but should earn less if the salaries were based on their background and qualifications.
Co-operatives can do a lot in this field as companies subject to values, starting by incorporating gender equity in training on values and cooperative principles addressed to members, employees and public in general, as there is no solidarity nor democracy if there is no gender equity.
Co-operative enterprises, particularly those on a larger scale, can be important players in mainstreaming gender topic in their advertising campaigns, and influence the medias to take a responsible attitude.
But perhaps the most important challenge is to contribute from the solidarity economy to the democratization of the word. The presence of co-operatives managing radios, cable television services or newspapers, should be a way to challenge the multimedia groups that controlled by the concentrated economy and its patriarchal culture reproduce discriminatory stereotypes.
Multiplying co-operative medias and promoting women’s participation can contribute to change the structural conditions in which societies communicate, thus contributing to the commitments assumed by the States in the Beijing Platform: “Encourage and recognize women’s media networks, including electronic networks and other new technologies of communication, as a means for the dissemination of information and the exchange of views, including at the international level, and support women’s groups active in all media work and systems of communications to that end”.
Co-operatives and care economic
These lines began by indicating that most of the female work is care service and unpaid. This was not arbitrary. It is because the inequality in the distribution of domestic work is the greatest obstacle for women to be able to insert themselves into paid productive activities under equal conditions.
The massive incorporation of women in the labor market is a relatively recent phenomenon that has not been accompanied by an adjustment of equal magnitude in the tasks that make the reproduction of life. The care of children, the elderly and all those with limitations in their autonomy, issues of cleanliness and food, remain largely in the hands of women, which severely limits their possibilities of training and dedication to paid work or any other political, social or cultural activity that allows their personal development.
The answer to this labor overload have been, on the one hand, to appeal to relations of solidarity with other women in the family, and on the other, the outsourcing of part of the tasks through hiring another woman, under precarious conditions.
Actually, they are chains of care, where sectors in better economic conditions delegate tasks in subordinate sectors, producing and reproducing inequality. Many of these are global chains of care, since the worker is often a migrant who has sacrificed the living conditions of her family to send remittances to her home country. As described by ECLAC, “The higher-income groups perceive the benefits of meeting their care needs, although this implies neglecting the needs of those who provide them with these services. In this way they can transfer the work of care to others: men to women, upper classes to lower classes, national to immigrants. The people at the end of the chain are so poor that they can not hire a domestic worker and should rely on their family unpaid domestic work. In short, there is a transfer of situations that generate inequality between women and families of different nationality, social class, race or level of education, among others. There are, therefore, important qualitative changes in intra-gender differences, which hide the persistence of inequalities between women and men” .
This has been the “market solution”: job insecurity and migration.
Against this, there have been initiatives aimed at recognizing the rights of care, and to take the public responsibility that these services were not satisfied under precarious conditions.
An example is the recently approved Uruguay Care System Law, which aims “the promotion of the development of the autonomy of people in a dependency situation, their care and assistance, through the creation of a National Integrated System of Care as a set of actions and measures aimed at the design and implementation of public policies that constitute a solidarity model and co-responsible between families, State, community and market” (Law 19.353, Art. 2).
The system provides different components according to the population to which it is addressed: nursery gardens, community nursing homes (in the case of children), and day centers or personal assistants (in the case of the elderly). All these services could be provided by co-operatives. In the Uruguayan case specifically the service of personal assistants to the elderly or disabled includes the offer of co-operatives.
That is to say, in order to ensure that social responsibility for care does not fall on women, a system regulated by the State is built, where organizations from the field of solidarity economy are built.
In this way, co-operatives can provide an initial response to this problem through the provision of care services.
This has been positively visualized by the ILO in stating that “Cooperatives can provide a way out of precarious and informal working arragements, which can be a feature of working life for many migrant workers. They can offer access to key services needed by domestic workers, including training and education, housing, and financial services as well as care services for their own families. There are experiences of trade unions helping to establish cooperatives for their member in the provision of such services.” .
As the ILO rightly points out, “there is a long history of the cooperative model being chosen by domestic workers as a suitable form of organization for their needs. Indeed, the fi rst known domestic workers’ cooperative was established in 1877 by butlers and cooks in Uruguay.”
Within the current experiences, it rescues the experiences of the We can do it! Cooperative from Brooklyn (New York), the Cooperative Home Care Associates, Which is the largest domestic cooperative in the US, and the Jamaican Household Workers Association (JHWA). An special analysis is perform regarding the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a registered national trade union and a grassroots organization which works to provide employment through the creation of health care, home care, midwifery and child care cooperatives. Through these cooperatives, according to SEWA, “workers obtain continuous work and income in a non-exploitative manner with better bargaining position, and are transformed into worker-owners”.
In sum, the aging of society as a result of increased life expectancy and the need to reduce the overload of unpaid work by women in the home create the opportunity for working cooperatives to provide these services, collectively guaranteeing decent work conditions with sufficient scale to provide a comprehensive and effective services.
However, if only cooperatives are considered to meet the demands presented individually by each household, two actors are missing that can be incorporated from the solidarity economy: users of services and the community.
Should not users of services (older adults, for example) have voice and vote on these issues? Could not they contribute, even in the form of work or capital, resources to meet their needs in solidarity?
Should not the community ask how to develop services based on relationships of reciprocity that allow greater autonomy of women against the care requirements of each family?
Should not solidarity economy appeal to the construction of relations of reciprocity and community responsibility, to build alternatives beyond the exchange relations proper to the hiring of labor for domestic tasks?
One of the central contributions that cooperativism can and must make in the defense of women’s rights is to provide innovative solutions that enable a redistribution of care tasks, which today are unpaid and account for two-thirds of their work. And do it from efficiency, participation and solidarity, because it will be where the answers are, and not in the market, which only deepens inequalities through precarization. Let’s look at some examples that are illustrative.
The housing cooperative Trabensol (Trabajadores en Solidaridad) is an older adults’ cooperative in Madrid. It has built a modern bioclimatic building of 16,000 square meters where each partner enjoys his apartment –there are 54 apartment– Under a system of assignment of use. It is a space built and managed by the people involved, trying to guarantee their autonomous development and providing an innovative outlet in the old-age situation, avoiding institutionalized responses where they do not participate (public or lucrative geriatrics) and family workloads (especially women). This is an experience inspired by what has been a reality since the 1970s in Denmark, where “cohousing” or cohabitation of this type is common for the so-called elderly population .
At the other end of the age bands is the La Mainada example in Cataluña. It is an association where families jointly assume the care of their young children, in a proposal combining the remunerated professional work (of a specialist person) and the solidarity work of the “mofathers”. It is an initiative that goes in the sense of “relocating” the care work, leaving the strictly familiar orbit, creating collective, supportive and participative instances.
I cannot avoid mentioning in this brief list of examples the experience of the Italian social cooperatives, which arise precisely because the initial efforts of small groups of volunteers and workers unhappy with the public offering and market provision of social services and community care. Within these cooperatives the vision of the different actors (salaried workers, volunteer workers and beneficiaries) is conjugated, especially in which they have a “multi stakeholder” structure. Working in close coordination with the state and other community organizations, and appealing to exemplary cooperative integration strategies, they have become the main supply of social care services in their country.
Another example is the Federation of Home and Health Services Cooperatives of Quebec, Canada, founded in 1996 and integrated by 69 co-operatives that serves approximately 60,000 users. In this case the associates are the users, who are organized in cooperatives to guarantee the service.
In Argentina, some public service co-operatives, where most of the small-town community is associated, are beginning to take up this issue. For example, members of the Argentine Federation of Labor Cooperatives (FECOOTRA), the Argentine Federation of Solidarity Health Companies (FAESS), and the Public Service Cooperatives of the Province of Buenos Aires (FEDECOBA) are working in a collaborative way with the advice of two national universities in the design of care services, where users and community are represented by public service co-operatives, and services are provided by workers’ cooperatives.
All of these are part of multiple initiatives that have similar orientations around the world but are still marginal in terms of society as a whole.
There is an important need for reflection and debate here on the most advisable paths in this cross between domestic economy and solidarity economy, or between the struggle for the rights of women and the struggle for economic democracy.
The ultimate aim is to build systems of care that appeal to solidarity and participation to address three rights simultaneously: the right to care, the right of women and the right of the care system workers.
Axes for an alliance for equity
Building a society where gender equality prevails requires organization and militancy to change reality. There is an huge opportunity if those who work for economic democracy from the solidarity economy and the growing movement for women’s rights are able to join in their efforts..
According to what has been argued, some axes emerge for this task:
• Incorporate the organization and promotion of cooperatives and other solidarity economy enterprises into the agenda of the women’s rights movement as a way to challenge economic power to the concentrated capital that imposes the interests of patriarchy.
• Incorporate the gender perspective in all areas of cooperatives, including work organization, communication policies and education activities, from sustaining gender equity as a constituent part of the values of solidarity and democracy.
• Organize gender committees or equivalent spaces within the cooperative movement, as a tool for fight for equity within cooperative organizations, and facilitate their articulation with the agenda of the women’s rights movement.
• Incorporate a gender perspective in the self-management of working conditions, ensuring that women’s participation results in a strong sector of labor cooperatives that is a testimony to good labor practices.
• Demand from all States the fulfillment of the commitments made in the Declaration and Platform of the Fourth International Conference of Beijing.
• Promote the participation of women in mass media managed from the solidarity economy and other organizations of civil society, with the aim of providing an alternative perspective on the role of women in society.
• Promote debate and research on alternative ways for solidarity economy to provide innovative solutions for a reorganization of care tasks that frees women from work overload.
The project of society arising from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will not be possible if there is no sustained progress towards equality between men and women. Humanity has made important strides in this direction, but the outstanding challenges are still formidable.
The main one is to understand that a more egalitarian society requires another economy, whose objective is the reproduction of life and not the valorisation of capital. In this way, the efforts of the cooperative movement and of the various organizations and movements that fight for the rights of women must converge: more democracy in the economy with a greater role for women is the way to a society where equality, freedom and fraternity are the values that structure our relationships.
Dr. Ariel Enrique Guarco
President of the Confederación Cooperativa de la República Argentina (COOPERAR)
Buenos Aires, march 2017