Positive Impact of Worker Co-ops on NI’s Economy

An interview with PhD student – Ellie Perrin

What is your research about? 

In a nutshell, this research’s primary focus is the contribution of worker cooperatives to Northern Ireland’s economy. Interestingly, there is an absence of research on cooperatives with respect to Northern Ireland’s post-conflict transition, a gap that deserves attention. Over the last four years, I have embedded myself in the co-operative movement and achieved a significant set of interviews (40+) with co-operatives and key stakeholders. The research focuses primarily on the experience of worker co-operatives in and around Belfast but other co-operatives across NI have also participated in the research.

What have you found about co-operatives in Northern Ireland?

This body of work points to the benefits of worker co-operatives in challenging sectarianism; fostering the inclusion of women in the economy; addressing social deprivation and supporting community empowerment; fostering decent work and addressing exploitative working conditions in the workplace.

In their attempt to be inclusive in intersectional ways, the projects involved in the research contribute to what we can call a “counterculture” to an environment dominated by sectarianism and neoliberalism. This highlights what is too often obscured when we look at post-conflict Northern Ireland and its mainstream economic policy, i.e. resistance (or critical agency). While the research focuses on worker co-operatives, other co-operatives (in agriculture, co-operative shops or even breweries) seem to share a similar aim towards community capacity building, developing anti-capitalist economies, providing genuine cross-community experiences, in other words providing a vision for living, working and consuming in a more democratic, fair and sustainable way.

What is hindering the growth of the sector?

Unfortunately, co-operatives’ social value is hindered by a lack of capacity within the sector, lack of visibility and insignificant media and government attention. In particular, the social economy policy in Northern Ireland favours social enterprises at the expense of co-operatives, in effect side-lining collective democratic organisations. Only Belfast City Council openly recognises both co-operatives and social enterprises in its strategy. Moreover, the social economy policy is embedded into a neoliberal culture, more interested in forging the entrepreneurial spirit of the Community & Voluntary Sector than supporting grassroots community efforts. But above all, the support for the social economy (either co-ops or social enterprises) is nominal in comparison to the government’s spend on economic development, support for large enterprises and foreign direct investment.

What would be a game changer for the sector?

Without a doubt, we need a funded Co-operative Development Agency. In fact, a report Co-operative Unleashed published in 2018 mentioned the role of a local co-operative development agency if we want to double the size of the co-operative sector by 2030. At the moment, co-operatives do not benefit from a level playing field as they face barriers to their development that other organisations don’t. Because they operate under distinct values and legislative framework, they need to be supported by an organisation that can provide this in-house tailored support. A co-operative development agency would also be able to take on the role of raising the profile of co-operatives as “real” businesses, with policy makers, politicians but also the wider public. Lack of education and awareness is probably one of the biggest barriers to the development of co-ops in NI.

If better supported, what would be the benefits of a co-operative economy?

Co-operatives can play a fundamental role in fostering a vibrant and diversified local economy where the local community is the main beneficiary. As well as a track record of being economically more resilient, more efficient and happier businesses, co-operatives place the common good above profit. Co-operatives could be better supported through a transformative community wealth-building programme, whereby local authorities and government invest in the local economy so as to deliver “value for people” rather than “value for money”. Co-operatives can also play a role in Northern Ireland achieving its commitment to building environmental resilience from the ground up and involving the participation of communities in the process. Co-ownership and democratic control over assets, capital and labour are key elements to drive the decarbonisation of the economy. While co-operatives operate in all economic sectors, there are emerging opportunities for community and worker co-operatives in retrofitting and other “green jobs”, sustainable food, especially with community supported agriculture, the circular economy, artisanal products or even digital-creative sectors. Worker buyouts also offer opportunities to not only save jobs but also to direct production towards being more sustainable, green and socially useful.

Ellie Perrin is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool undertaking research on worker co-operatives in Northern Ireland.