Promoting ILO Conventions and Recommendations The cooperatives experience

The adoption of new ILO Conventions and Recommendations by the annual International Labour Conference typically follows many months and years of preparatory work and debate. What happens then, however, is not the end of a process but rather the beginning. This background brief explains how the practical work of promoting ILO Conventions and Recommendations begins as a way of ensuring that the words are translated into action.

ILO Recommendation No. 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives (co-ops) marked the first time in nearly 40 years that the International Labour Conference directly addressed the role of cooperatives in the world of work, a sector which collectively is far more significant in employment terms than all multinational corporations taken together. The new Recommendation (adopted in 2002) defines cooperatives as autonomous organizations of people "united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise" and sets a framework within which governments and social partners are encouraged to work to promote co-op development.

Co-ops have a potentially important part to play in the development of decent work, a role that the ILO Director-General Juan Somavia himself highlighted recently. "Guided by human and social values, they draw on collective strength to promote the well-being of members, their families and their communities. They are important advocates for a globalization which recognizes and respects the rights, aspirations, needs and identity of people," he said.

To work closely with international and national co-op organizations, the ILO has its own Cooperative Branch (COOP), which was actively engaged in the preparatory work behind Recommendation No. 193. But having seen the Recommendation adopted, how could the opportunity which it represented best be grasped? How, in other words, could the promotion of cooperatives Recommendation be taken out from the ILO's home in Geneva and become a tool of practical use around the world?

The team of the Cooperative Branch describes how they set to work, firstly arranging for the text itself to be translated into over 30 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese. These documents were then used as the basis for a series of briefing meetings and conferences, many arranged in partnership with the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and other international and national co-op organizations. Ten global events, 25 regional meetings and 35 national conferences were held, and the ILO also arranged to brief other UN and international agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Promotional materials, including wall calendars and a CD-ROM, were produced.

So far, so good. But what was really needed, according to the Cooperative Branch, was a resource which helped spell out how the Recommendation could be used by partner agencies and by the ILO's own field staff to bring about concrete improvements at the policy, legal, institutional and managerial levels.

Since 2004, ILO COOP has a tool to assist it. The English version of a new 60-page guidance and training pack, Promoting Cooperatives: A guide to ILO Recommendation 193, was launched in July, and work is now getting underway to produce companion French and Spanish language versions.

The pack, according to its author, Stirling Smith, is designed for two audiences. One group is made up of the ILO social partners, including ministries of labour, and his employers' and workers' organizations, which may be familiar with the ILO but not know very much about co-ops. The other group is cooperators (members of co-ops) who by contrast may not know very much about the ILO and its system of Conventions and Recommendations.

The pack is not afraid to spell out, therefore, the background to the new Recommendation. It explains among other things the origins of the ILO, its role in the UN family of agencies, and its unique tripartite structure. It describes the way in which ILO Conventions and Recommendations are drawn up and adopted, and explains the way in which Conventions are ratified. It also describes the particular history of Recommendation No. 193, tracing it back to an ILO Governing Body decision in 1999, and also pointing out that it replaces an earlier ILO Recommendation first adopted in 1966.

In a similar way, the pack explains the nature of today's cooperative movement, tracing its roots in early nineteenth-century Europe and spelling out the set of principles, known as the Statement on Cooperative Identity, which has been developed by the International Cooperative Alliance and which is accepted today by co-ops worldwide. The role which co-ops can play in meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals is discussed as well.

Also included in the pack is a detailed activity, designed for small groups to undertake, by which the standards in Recommendation No. 193 can be compared directly with current co-op legislation. This, according to Pauline Green, president of ICA Europe, is a key area where the Recommendation can assist. "It is vitally important that the legislative framework is improved to give cooperatives a level playing-field with other forms of business. The new guide will be a tremendous help to cooperative organizations in getting their legal framework reviewed," she says.

The Promoting Cooperatives: A guide to ILO Recommendation No. 193 pack is the result of a three-way partnership, between the ILO, the ICA and the Cooperative College in the UK, with the funding for the work provided by the UK Government's Department for International Development. The pack was officially launched during a ceremony held on 6 July in the House of Commons in the UK. Since publication, it has been used at several meetings and events, including a training course on Cooperative Policy and Legislation held at the ILO International Training Centre in Turin, 18-29 October 2004 where eleven countries from Bolivia to Sri Lanka were represented. The guide can be ordered by sending an email to