At work together: Disability inclusion in cooperative enterprises

This is part of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Cooperatives and the World of Work series. It has been produced in partnership with the Gender, Equality and Diversity (GED) Branch at the ILO.

A recent report (covering 74 countries and around three-quarter of the world’s population) estimates that worldwide more than 26 million people work in cooperative enterprises as employees or worker-members. Among these people there are also women and men with disabilities.

Some cooperatives publish information on the percentage of their workers who have disabilities and the steps being taken to ensure their inclusion in the workplace. However, collecting disability-disaggregated data is not a universal practice, and the international cooperative movement may wish to further encourage this good practice. Thus, consolidated data on the numbers of people with disabilities working for cooperatives are not currently available.
Although the seven cooperative principles do not specifically mention adherence to international labour standards, some parts of the cooperative movement recognize the importance of cooperatives operating with demonstrably high standards of employment practice.
Using their ‘cooperative advantage’, cooperatives can promote disability inclusion within their own structures in multiple ways. For instance, recruitment procedures need to be designed in an inclusive way, actively reaching out to disabled job candidates and providing reasonable accommodation during the selection process, including information in alternative formats like audio or sign language interpretation. Human Resource officers as well as other cooperative workers need to be sensitized about disability issues. Cooperation with disabled persons’ organizations can be instrumental in this regard and beyond. Further, accessibility needs to be ensured not only when it comes to information but also in terms of the built environment (buildings and facilities) and emergency procedures. Where general accessibility standards are insufficient to address disability-related needs of individuals, clear procedures on how to request reasonable accommodation, eg adjusting and modifying equipment or adapting working hours, are needed. Ideally, cooperatives have an explicit policy on disability inclusion in place that is designed in consultation with people with disabilities and backed up by the commitment of the cooperative workers.

A way into work
New models for cooperative enterprises designed to promote the inclusion of women and men with disabilities into the workplace are being developed in order not to replicate the mistakes of the state-controlled models of the past. Increasingly, cooperatives encourage active involvement of people with disabilities in the management of their enterprises.
The social cooperative model developed in Italy is a good example. Legislation enacted in 1991 (Law 381) promotes social cooperatives, which deliver services such as providing work integration for disadvantaged groups into Italian society, including people with disabilities. Governmental support is available for social cooperatives where at least 30 per cent of employees belong to disadvantaged groups. These arrangements respect cooperative autonomy and member control. They also acknowledge that state support is legitimate and necessary for cooperatives with social objectives advancing social welfare. Approximately 45,000 workers from disadvantaged groups work in social cooperatives in Italy.
There is growing interest in different areas of the world in the concept of multi-stakeholder cooperatives, where membership is drawn from the different related parties in an enterprise. Multi-stakeholder cooperatives may provide a structure for people with disabilities to share ownership and control of an enterprise with other partners.
Public procurement policies that support cooperatives of disabled women and men are also an effective way of balancing support measures with self-determination. One example from the Philippines is described at the end of this briefing note.

Meeting the service needs of people with disabilities
In many parts of the world, cooperatives have demonstrated an understanding of, and a determination to meet, disability related needs of their customers. One area in which cooperatives are focusing on is transportation services accessible to people with disabilities. For example, TitiFloris, a successful French cooperative enterprise, offers accessible transportation and taxi services. Established in 2006, it has grown rapidly and now operates in several cities and towns in the west of the country, employing 350 workers. Additionally, TitiFloris provides standard minibus transport services for children and the elderly. It specialises in offering transportation services for people using wheelchairs and other persons with disabilities. Sixty of TitiFloris’s employees are people with disabilities, and the cooperative was a prize-winner in 2014 for its work towards workplace inclusion.
In Rio de Janeiro, Especial Coop Taxi performs a similar role providing services to physically disabled persons with its dedicated fleet and specially trained drivers. Formed in 2003, Especial Coop offers a service that takes into account the needs of customers, including disability-related needs that mainstream services have not yet addressed. Drivers in the cooperative have received training in understanding the needs of their clients.
In Singapore, the cooperative insurer NTUC Income launched an insurance plan in 2013 designed for children and young people on the autism spectrum. NTUC Income is the first insurer in Singapore to voluntarily offer insurance to a part of the community usually denied coverage. NTUC Income also consults with the Autism Resource Centre Singapore and its members to better understand the condition and the profile of children and young people with autism, of which there are estimated to be over 30,000 in Singapore. The underlying message from NTUC Income is that as a cooperative, it should provide for all customers without discrimination.
Credit Unions (member cooperatives for savings and loans) are also looking to ensure that their services are inclusive of members who have disabilities. In the United States, for example, the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions partners with the Disability Outreach Network in order to make financial services and credit accessible to people with disabilities while providing them with financial education. Among its services, the initiative provides deaf persons access to low-interest loans in order to purchase special equipment, as well as income tax advice.

Historically, cooperatives were sought out by communities and groups who were experiencing disadvantages as a way to assert their collective interests in the world of work. As they are particularly well placed to promote the right of persons with disabilities to decent work, cooperatives continue to play an important role in contributing to breaking the cycle of marginalization and social exclusion of people with disabilities.
In line with international labour standards and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, cooperatives in many countries are increasingly adopting a rights-based approach to become more inclusive of women and men with disabilities, so that they can participate fully and on an equal basis in their communities and in society at large.
Cooperatives can promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the world of work in many different ways. Cooperative-to-cooperative collaboration for advancing the rights of women and men with disabilities as cooperative founders, members, workers and leaders is of particular importance. As part of its commitment to promote decent work for all, it is essential for the cooperative movement to give even greater priority to achieving the inclusion of people with disabilities in cooperative workplaces.

Editor’s Note
Guyana observed National Cooperatives Week in July.

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