Article by Timothée Duverger for Alternatives Economiques, 26/06/2022, France

The 110th Session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) ended on 11 June 2022 by adopting for the first time, in its conclusions, a universal definition of the social and solidarity economy (SSE). This is a historic event, which is an essential milestone in moving towards a revolution within the United Nations.

Created in 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) proclaimed eighty years later that its “fundamental purpose (…) is that every woman and man should have access to decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity.” Decent work has become part of Goal 8 of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is based on four pillars: job creation, social protection, social dialogue, and rights at work – in which it was planned to integrate safety and health issues during this ILC.

Growing interest

The ILO’s interest in SSE is long-standing, considering the creation in 1920 of a cooperative unit. However, it was not until 2002 that cooperatives were recommended. More recently, ILO recommendations have broadened its focus on SSE and strengthened its role in promoting the transition from the informal to the formal economy in 2015 or resilience after war, civil war or disasters in 2017.

This place of the SSE was confirmed in 2019 with the ILO’s centenary declaration, which saw it as “sustainable enterprises” capable of “generating decent work, achieving full and productive employment and improving living standards for all”. The pandemic has accelerated the recognition of SSE. In 2021, the Global Call to action for a Human-Centred Recovery from the Covid-19 Crisis highlighted the contribution of SSE to decent work and called on governments to support it, particularly in the most affected sectors of activity.

The virtues of SSE

In its preparatory report , the ILO recognized the contribution of SSE to decent work and sustainable development. The report stresses its ability to create jobs in many sectors of activity, such as food, housing, care for children and the elderly and financial services. SSE initiatives contribute to the reduction of inequalities in rural areas and particularly gender inequalities. SSE also appears to be a key player in social protection systems. It can facilitate access to group insurance or provide social, health or housing services.

More resilient than the traditional economy in the face of the slowdown in economic activity as during the financial crisis of 2008, the SSE has also not only better resisted the pandemic, but also responded to urgent social needs and developed solidarity mechanisms during it. The most vulnerable people, including refugees, find opportunities for social inclusion, which contributes to the reduction of poverty and inequality. The SSE is also at the forefront of reconstruction, economic recovery and social cohesion efforts, after natural disasters or wars.

The SSE also supports transitions, the report continues, whether they concern the transition from the informal economy to the formal economy, the digital transition (cooperative platform, services) or the ecological transition (renewable energies, circular economy, sustainable food).

These virtues attributed to the SSE do not exclude some points of vigilance, in particular concerning rights at work. While the SSE may be required to promote international labour standards, the report warns of the risks associated with “pseudo-cooperatives” created to circumvent labour laws.

International recognition

The enthusiasm for SSE led the International Labour Conference to adopt a resolution and conclusions. After the pandemic, international organizations are making SSE a priority to build a more resilient economy, able to withstand crises and provide solutions to social and environmental problems.

It is historic, for the first time the SSE benefits from a universal definition. It is characterized, first of all, according to a normative approach, by its principles: collective and/or general interest, voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, democratic and/or participatory governance, autonomy, independence, primacy of the human and social purpose over capital. This definition is complemented by a legal-institutional approach integrating into its scope cooperatives, mutual societies, associations, foundations, social enterprises, self-help groups and any entity operating according to its principles.

The ILO fully recognizes the “contribution of the social and solidarity economy to decent work, inclusive and sustainable economies, social justice, sustainable development and improved living standards for all”. It provides for the creation of an international observatory responsible for developing statistical knowledge of SSE, prior to the implementation of dedicated national policies, for which it calls on governments. The challenge is indeed to spread the SSE throughout the world through the creation of a favorable legal environment, its integration into recovery and employment strategies and its access to financing, markets, technologies, infrastructure or public procurement. More than a fad, we are witnessing a large-scale movement, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopting the same day. a recommendation on SSE and social innovation, which also aims at the development of SSE policies by its Member States. The development of SSE is thus becoming a global issue in the post-Covid era, this new recognition coming to give credibility to the project of making it the desirable standard of tomorrow’s economy.