By Simel Esim,
Programme Manager at the ILO heading the portfolio on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy
Thank you for this invitation to contribute to CIRIEC’s Social Economy News. I would like to share some highlights from the making of the definition of the SSE, that was adopted as part of the International Labour Conference (ILC) resolution on decent work and the SSE in June 2022. The same definition was also included in the UN General Assembly (GA) resolution on promoting the SSE for sustainable development adopted in April 2023.
Our journey around the making of an international tripartite definition of the SSE started when the 341st Session of the ILO’s Governing Body (GB) decided to put a general discussion on decent work and the social and solidarity economy on the agenda of the 110th ILC in 2022. This meant that the ILO had to prepare an Office report on Decent work and the social and solidarity economy to inform the general discussion.
The consultations leading to the report clearly pointed out to the need to include a proposed definition of the SSE. We knew this would be a core aspect of the general discussion developed in consultation with our colleagues in the Office, ILO constituents and SSE partners. An international definition that is agreed upon by the ILO’s tripartite constituents would be a key outcome of the general discussion.
We started with a review of all existing definitions of the SSE. Our analysis showed that the definitions from the different countries, regions and international organizations were either substantive (values and principles based) or based on legal forms (institutions based). We knew that the definition provided by the Office needed to be all inclusive, bringing both the substantive elements and legal forms together. Being an international organization with 187 Members, we needed to acknowledge the different regional approaches. The social economy needed to be there along with the solidarity economy to reflect both the European and the Latin American traditions.
Honouring the tripartite nature of the ILO, where governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations participate, we also needed a definition of the SSE that transcends traditional dichotomies. The definition would need to include market and non-market producers and entities operating in the formal and informal economies. It would also need to reflect the dual nature of SSE entities as both organizations and enterprises.
Although some conceptualizations of the SSE, especially those from the Global North exclude informal economy entities from the definition, this was not an option for us at the ILO with majority of ILO Member States being from the Global South. Considering six out of ten workers in the world work in the informal economy, and SSE entities are a common form of organization for them, the ILO definition of the SSE had to reflect their realities. Moreover, ILO Recommendation No. 204 concerning the transition from the informal to the formal economy (2015) recognized that SSE “units” may operate in the informal economy.
We also had a close look at what ILO constituents said about the SSE and its entities in previous ILC and GB discussions. We reviewed all the international labour standards (ILS), some explicitly referred to the SSE or the entities that fall under it. We developed a list of these ILS that specifically refer to the SSE or SSE entities, and included it as an annex to the Office report and in the subsequent ILC resolution.
We paid specific attention to the discussions at the 90th ILC resulting in the adoption of the ILO Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, 2002 (No. 193) to gain better insights on the positions of the ILO constituents, historically, around SSE entities. In doing so we had in mind cooperatives as key building blocks of the SSE in many Member States.
We were also keen to have a value and principle-based definition like the one in the statement on the cooperative identity that was adopted by the ICA in 1995. In constructing a proposed definition, we focused on how SSE entities, with their values and principles, are different from other public and private sector entities. We wanted to show the differences and commonalities within the SSE, but also how the SSE entities are different from those that exist outside the boundaries of the SSE. Unity in diversity and diversity in unity was our guiding thought.
I knew that the definition in the report had to build on the legal and policy documents of Member States of the SSE. So, we put together a database of existing policies and legislation. We ensured that all the relevant legislation is integrated in the ILO’s NATLEX database of national labour, social security and related human rights legislation. National laws on the SSE typically consider that any other form of organization is part of the SSE if it observes the SSE values and principles as spelled out in that law.
We put together a Legal Compendium on the Social and Solidarity Economy identifying the values and principles of the proposed definition based on existing SSE policies and legislation. The compendium also included an analysis of the organizational types and policy measures highlighted in subnational and national SSE policies and legislation.
Along the way we kept consulting on the proposed definition with the ILO Constituents, and SSE partners. This was an important way to build ownership which then helped us move in a smoother manner during the genera discussion at the ILC.
The definition of the SSE in the Office report was well received by ILO Members and SSE stakeholders alike for its relevance and timeliness. They appreciated its value and principle driven construction, and operationalizability into legal and statistical realms. These were indeed the concerns driving our work.
During the general discussion at the ILC in June 2022 some additions and revisions were made to the definition proposed by the Office. For instance, a sentence on “SSE entities aspire to long-term viability and sustainability, and to the transition from the informal to the formal economy and operate in all sectors of the economy” was added to the definition that was adopted.
I am happy that the value and principles-based definition of the SSE developed by the Office was adopted with onely a few changes. The definition was included in the fifth paragraph of the ILC Resolution on decent work and the SSE. The ILO constituents and SSE partners welcomed the definition, which was also adopted as part of the UN GA resolution on promoting the SSE for sustainable development.
We have now turned our attention to implementing the seven-year Office strategy and action plan on decent work and the SSE (2023-29). As part of this strategy and action plan, we will be working on operationalizing the definition. The definition is intended to be flexible and to accommodate diverse situations in different national contexts, in line with the diversity of SSE units around the world and the multiplicity of conceptual frameworks in SSE policy, legislation and statistical frameworks. We are working on research in Asia, for policy-oriented social dialogue on the SSE using the ILC definition.
We are also building on the definition to enable the further refinement of statistical frameworks on the SSE and, consequently, more systematic data collection. A room document proposing a roadmap on the statistics of the SSE will be presented at the 21st International Conference of Labour Statisticians to move forward on establishing statistical standards on the SSE.
Researchers from the CIRIEC community have been critical partners in this process and we look forward to our continued collaboration with you all in moving forward.