[The co-op] isn’t only work, it is a sisterhood. These sentiments, articulated by New York domestic worker and member of the Up & Go Cooperative, Araceli Dominguez, are uncannily similar to words of my own SEWA sisters. Alongside work and income, they will tell you, their cooperatives offer them friendships, trust, solidarity and love.
This is why Trebor Scholz’s new book, Own This! How Platform Cooperatives Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet, is a labour of love. It lays out the stories of cooperatives across the world, building models of trust-based platforms, and working to stem the tide against the inequalities and injustices faced by workers trapped in platform capitalism.
As I sit in SEWA’s offices in Ahmedabad city, surrounded by women co-operators, and I read Trebor’s book, I am struck by his ideas of ‘solidarity at scale’. Indeed, SEWA is a relatively large movement of Unions and Cooperatives - 2.1 million unionised informal women workers, and 300,000 organised into over 100 trade-based cooperatives. But what has it taken, and what does it continue to take in the platform economy, to build and sustain sisterhood, trust and love, at this scale? How must one think of ‘scaling a sisterhood’?
The ‘whys’ are perhaps simpler to answer - without access to decent work or income security, or social security, poor women informal workers of India are left with very few choices. In order to escape the poverty trap, alternative avenues for work and income must exist, and they must be viable and sustainable. Cooperatives have once been such an alternative, as in the case of SEWA. And scaling these cooperatives offers more access to resources such as capital, markets and technology, leading to higher work and income security.
Scaling cooperatives also offers increased bargaining power to workers, and they can demand better conditions of work, social protection and a policy landscape that works for both individual members, and their collective entities. For poor women especially, these resources and a collective voice transforms into outcomes linked to better health and nutrition, education, time, leisure, agency and choices and the ability to exercise these choices, as Naila Kabeer has argued in her work.
The ‘how’ question of scaling is more contentious, as Trebor surmises in Chapter 3 of the book. Here again I turn to my SEWA sisters for their insights. They have a few lessons to share.
Sangeetaben is a leader and Board member of Megha Mandali (Megha Cooperative) - an indigenous women farmers’ cooperative with a membership of 1001 farmers. She believes that if Megha were to keep growing, it is possible that men might seize control of the cooperative. Or that there would likely be an erosion of democratic governance. Or if a large-scale Megha somehow found itself out of business, thousands and thousands would be left without livelihood. No, says Sangeetaben, Megha must remain small, rooted in the local community.
But what then of the gains of scale? Here is where Sangeetaben looks to the federation of SEWA cooperatives to act as the aggregator and support system of the many cooperatives that can then grow (and subsequently gain power) through the federated cooperative model. Here Sangeetaben and Trebor have similar ideas - scaling is not just a market-oriented endeavour. Rather, it is a means to achieve the best possible outcomes for the singular cooperative entity and each of its individual members. Therefore, not an attempt to ‘scale up’, but to ‘scale out’ and ‘scale deep’.
Trebor’s typology of scaling up, scaling out and scaling deep is a handy way to think about cooperative growth paths. And indeed, the objective of growth cannot be to compete with capitalist giants, rather to build the sisterhood, and create an ecosystem of cooperativism. The role of SEWA Cooperative Federation is to build this ecosystem, as a Women’s Enterprise Support System - offering services for cooperatives to be incubated, become viable, and grow, while also advocating for the State to recognise and enable these cooperatives in the larger public arena.
There is another question that must be answered - what do women-owned, women-led cooperatives and their federations, in informal economies (and I think of the platform economy as a form of informality), need to achieve a scale? I contend here, based on my experiences working with several of SEWA’s cooperatives, across trades and across rural/urban economies, that a lack of ideas or solutions isn’t the problem. There is a huge amount of creativity amongst informal women workers, but they often lack the time and resources to try these solutions. Furthermore, with the NGO-isation of cooperatives and cooperative federations, the influence of Global North’s business of philanthropy risks eroding ideas of patience, persistence and perseverance, which are crucial for these cooperatives to grow.
Trebor lays out an ambitious vision for 2035, which is an appropriate conclusion to the book’s journey through platform cooperativism. But what will it take to get us there?
I ask Jayaben, President of SEWA Homecare - a cooperative of domestic workers in Ahmedabad city. She tells me that there are five crucial things we would need to grow, and indeed scale, into a model that tackles platform capitalism: investments that are designed by cooperators themselves; a policy landscape that is conducive to women and women-owned cooperatives; data and evidence that can act as tools to achieve this policy landscape and bring recognition and a counting of informal women workers’ cooperatives; local, national and international partnerships that link and cross link the cooperative network into a web of solidarity and sisterhood; and importantly, young people, to take ownership of, and lead the way for cooperative growth in a way that is equitable, inclusive, and gentle on the planet.
As it pulls together the stories of platform cooperative’s across the world, I see Trebor’s book as a call to action. It helps me and my sisters at SEWA see that we are not an isolated movement, and there is indeed a growing tide of solidarity and sisterhood. The stories in the book are from across the world - a testament to the fact that the scale of this movement is global. The call to action, then, is to connect these localised movements, and amplify each other’s voices, in the true spirit of cooperativism.
Read Part 2 of our Own This! roundtable →
Salonie Muralidhara Hiriyur has been working with SEWA Cooperative Federation for the past 4 years, on developing a Women’s Enterprise Support System to enable sustainable and scalable enterprises owned, managed and run by informal women workers. Her work has focussed on themes of digital inclusion, including the idea of platform cooperatives.
In the past, Salonie was a fellow at the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE, New School), and has also worked in the research department of the ILO (Geneva) office. She is currently also associated with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) as a doctoral researcher and her work explores transformations in organising and mobilising of informal women workers, in the digital economy. She holds an MSc. in Gender, Development and Globalisation from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
About the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and SEWA Cooperative Federation
SEWA is a movement of women workers in the informal economy, working towards the economic empowerment of these workers. Over 50 years, 2.5 million women in India across 18 states have become members of this decentralised, grassroot movement.
SEWA Cooperative Federation, works to support women’s collective enterprises (WCEs), across sectors, enabling them to become viable, to innovate and to scale. Over 30 years, we have promoted 110+ women’s collectives, reaching 300,000 informal women workers, across sectors of work: agriculture and allied activities, dairy, handicrafts, services, social security, ﬁnance and labour-based work.
 ‘Ben’ is the Gujarati word for ‘sister’ and SEWA members refer to each other as ‘bens’ routinely