Q&A with WIEGO Social and Solidarity Economy Specialist Federico Parra

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Federico Parra, WIEGO's Social and Solidarity Economy Specialist
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The appointment of Federico Parra as Social and Solidarity Economy Specialist is WIEGO’s response to the need to support initiatives of workers in informal employment that fall within the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE). In this Q&A, Federico explains what his role will entail.

You were recently appointed WIEGO’s Social and Solidarity Economy Specialist. What can you tell us about this position? What will it involve?

The position is WIEGO’s response to the need to support informal workers’ initiatives around the world that fall within the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) as an organizational and production strategy and to assist the related global discussions.

At WIEGO, we believe that the SSE is a tool aiming to resist and overcome the informal sector’s exclusion, subjugation and marginalization. We also believe that it offers many suggestions regarding the meaning of a just transition, the search for decent work standards and formalization.

The position will involve gaining a deeper understanding of the various intellectual currents around the SSE and making these discussions accessible not only to the WIEGO team but also to the networks of workers who make up WIEGO. This means that we intend to support the networks as they influence global discussions on the relationship between workers in informal employment and the SSE. This will be carried out through collective thought-building spaces, strategic exchanges between different experiences and organizations, as well as relevant case studies.

Finally, WIEGO wishes to promote the recognition and adaptation of popular education processes about the SSE, which could enable ownership by organizations of workers in informal employment. The position of a specialist was conceived to pursue these goals.

Why is the Social and Solidarity Economy important to workers in informal employment and their organizations?

61 percent of the world’s labor force—that is, 2 billion workers—are informally employed graph First, we must remember that 61 per cent of the world’s labour force—that is, 2 billion workers—are informally employed. Then we can say that, although many workers in informal employment are not organized, an important percentage have partnered in organizational forms specific to the SSE, such as cooperatives, associations, mutual societies, trade unions and self-help groups, among others. These entities are often more similar or pertain to identity membership and practices associated with solidarity and cooperation, such as kinship ties, a shared community or ethnic background, the territorial situation or a common occupation.

Another reason why workers in informal employment choose SSE entities is that, on the one hand, they allow workers to collectivize their demands and interests in situations where their occupation or activity is underrepresented, invisible, persecuted, or even criminalized. On the other hand, SSE entities boost the  productivity of workers in informal employment in contexts of limited production and economic infrastructure, difficult access to financial aid and investment, and unequal competition with other economic actors.

In a cross-cutting way, SSE values and principles dictate that the well-being of members and society must be at the centre of any initiative. Production activities and their benefits should be the means to such an objective, not an end in themselves, and they should be regulated by democratic and participatory decision-making. In a nutshell, the SSE serves to fight against exploitation, overcome exclusion and secure decent work standards.

What kind of threats do Social and Solidarity Economy cooperatives and entities face?

As stated in the Resolution concerning decent work and the SSE, adopted in 2022 by the ILO during its 110th Session, the SSE faces regulatory, legal, institutional and economic barriers. Consequently, the document provides member states and the ILO itself with a series of recommendations to tackle these barriers. In particular, the Resolution suggests reviewing institutional and regulatory frameworks nationally to identify and surmount inconsistencies that inhibit the development of the SSE domestically. It advises strengthening supportive interactions between SSE entities and the authorities at all levels, including local, regional and national. It also recommends that SSE entities be made visible on a national and international scale through the development of statistics in the field.

The fact remains that, in some cases, workspaces are presented as SSE forms but, in truth, they make use of the SSE to sidestep formal regulatory frameworks on labour. This is alien to the nature of the SSE and reminds us of other recommendations contained in the Resolution and other ILO instruments, which speak of the need for regulation, diligence and adequate controls to ensure that decent work standards can be attained through SSE forms.

Finally, it should be noted that while some production initiatives are aimed at social benefits, they cannot be considered SSE entities if they lack worker ownership and democratic governance. There is a risk that the SSE might be co-opted by this corporatist trend. Therefore, WIEGO and its worker networks have requested to review, with the utmost care, which foundations and social enterprises identified as organizational categories do comply with SSE principles.

Why is WIEGO’s interest now focused on the Social and Solidarity Economy?

WIEGO has been working on the SSE for several years as it constitutes a relevant organizational arrangement among workers in informal employment. In recent years, we have developed several initiatives to promote the SSE within membership-based organizations (MBOs). We have also completed joint research in the field and have established important partnerships with key agencies in the SSE international arena, such as the ILO Cooperatives Unit. In fact, many of the positions advocated by WIEGO and its networks have been used as input for global declarations relating to the SSE.

Not without reason, the ILO “explicitly recognizes the social and solidarity economy as a relevant means of achieving sustainable development, social justice, decent work, productive employment and improved living standards for all.”

We could say that in the search for tools to tackle the world crisis following the pandemic and its pervasive repercussions, governments and global institutions have acknowledged the role played by the SSE in this recovery. Not without reason, the ILO “explicitly recognizes the social and solidarity economy as a relevant means of achieving sustainable development, social justice, decent work, productive employment and improved living standards for all.”

WIEGO finds it essential that, as the importance of the SSE is recognized, we also apply an interpretation that brings to the fore the interests, needs and circumstances of workers in informal employment and their organizations around the world.

Since you mention it, last year, WIEGO and organizations of workers in informal employment participated in the General Discussion on Decent Work and the Social and Solidarity Economy. What were the key demands raised by workers during this discussion?

Indeed. WIEGO and worker organizations introduced structural issues related to the definition of the SSE into the discussion. Not every form or initiative claiming to be part of the SSE helps workers in informal employment effectively. For WIEGO, the SSE approach is associated with the entities that prioritize: (1) access to decent work, (2) advocating for social justice in their national context, (3) improved living conditions for all, and (4) adequate transition from the informal to the formal economy.

The networks making up WIEGO have insisted that, among the principles governing the SSE, special prominence be given to the weight of “democratic governance” in workers’ organizing and production processes, as well as “collective ownership”. In other words, it is the nature of SSE organizational forms—as collective, political and economic subjects—that sets them apart from other entities that also generate social benefits through production initiatives, but whose control is concentrated in a limited number of hands.

The position paper placed by the networks and WIEGO on the Agenda of the International Labour Conference (ILC) states this clearly: “Primarily, the SSE must be socially beneficial economic activities that include income, livelihoods, gender equality, social protection, and ecological sustainability. The autonomy, independence, self-agency, and democratic participation characteristics of the SSE must be protected and advanced.”

Top photo: Federico Parra, WIEGO's Social and Solidarity Economy Specialist 
Informal Economy Topic