That Sickly Feeling
October 2005
Recent publication of the Ménard report on the state of Quebec’s health system clearly shows that we’re heading for a roadblock. And in the next 30 years, spending for social services is going to increase faster than government revenue. Indeed, this is a serious problem. I never really thought about the numerous questions arising from the health sector, however, as I get older, I can’t help but become concerned with the challenges facing our society. Not to mention that I’ve just returned from an education program in Bologna, Italy, where 85 % of social services are provided by cooperatives and academics praise the importance and the effectiveness of so-called “social” cooperatives. Interesting coincidence!

It all began in the 80’s in Italy. Already, the government couldn’t adequately respond to the growing demands of its ageing population. Moreover, citizens were interested in doing their part to help seniors have access to quality services. Conditions were ideal for all concerned to create a social cooperative. Forget the traditional cooperative that we all know! On the one hand, social cooperatives are not bound by a commitment to maximize member interests, but rather by an obligation to the community’s general interests and they cannot redistribute any surplus to their members. On the other hand, they’re allowed to benefit from some government support. Thus, special legislation was needed to confirm the particular status of this new kind of cooperative, which is characterized by the public nature of its mission and the private nature of its organizational structure.

But does it really work? Read and compare… Québec, well-known for its cooperative character, has a population of over 7.5 million people with some 3,000 cooperatives. While the tiny region of Émilie-Romagne, where Bologna is located, has a population of 4 million people and there are 15,000 cooperatives, 7,000 of which are social cooperatives. Imagine! Let’s just say that their expertise in the matter is beyond any doubt. In fact, these days, all (cooperative) eyes are on Émilie-Romagne. And they will be for long time to come.

An increasing number of observers now support the notion of reducing the government’s role to legislative and financial backing since social cooperatives seem to be much better community service providers. In Italy, cooperatives get together as consortiums to respond to government call for tenders in a very competitive fashion. They know how to work as a network and their small size protects them from excessive bureaucracy. They provide better services to their clients and a better working environment for their employees – a fact that has just been documented in an Italian study on attracting and retaining employees in various types of organizations. Ultimately, their survival rate is undeniable substantiation of their great efficiency.

There! Now, let’s deal with the union issue. In Québec, any talk about health cooperatives results in a lot of fear on the part of unions: “Are we going to replace stable and well-paying jobs with volunteerism and precarious employment?” They said no in Italy. Clearly and distinctly. Social cooperatives hire salaried professionals based on provisions as stated in the collective agreements negotiated with the unions. They can also count on volunteers, and to counter any abuse, there are legal provisions as to contracts entered into with the government that state that any volunteer work must complement the parameters of a salaried professionals’ job and not be a substitution to the latter. In short, Italians felt no need to break out the protest signs. We all support the social cooperative, because, at one time or another, we all have a loved one that can benefit from it.

Truthfully, the Italian social cooperative is ground-breaking and deserves closer examination. It is not wholly privatized, nor is it completely public, and through its cooperative attributes it succeeds in generating and inspiring the important trust relationship that makes all the difference. An important relationship, as I mentioned, that is based on trust and one that accounting knows nothing about, yet brings about efficiency and quality of social services that we all yearn for those who need them today… and sooner or later for ourselves.

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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