Italy’s social co-ops – a model for Northern Ireland to copy?

Social care provision is in crisis across much of the world. How can the quality of care be maintained or improved? How can it be made available to those who need it? And how can social care be carried out in an affordable way without underpaying or exploiting its workers? These questions are being asked in many countries and regions. Italy has come up with its own answer – social co-operatives – and its model is being copied across much of Europe. 

The latest Holywell Trust Forward Together podcast interviews John Restakis, who is executive director of Community Evolution Foundation, which describes itself as “a community economic development organization that partners with cooperatives and community-based enterprises to help communities gain control of their local economies”. He has studied the experience of social co-ops in Italy and is author of ‘Civilizing the State – Reclaiming Politics for the Common Good’, which considers social care experience and reform.

A previous podcast considered the example of the Mondragon Federation in the Basque area of Spain, which is a substantial organisation that contains some very large co-operatives. By contrast, the social co-ops in Italy are much smaller, yet have benefited from the strength of representation by their own federations.  

Italy’s social co-ops provide a range of social services, with those who work in the co-operatives and those who benefit from their services being members, providing effective representation of different interests in the management of the organisations. As well as social services, some of the co-ops are focused on labour integration. In these co-ops, people who have become marginalised from the labour market – for example, ex-prisoners and those who have recovered from drug addiction – are reintegrated into the workforce, while being properly paid for their work. 

Italy’s social co-ops have gained strength not only from sector representation and lobbying, but also through support from political parties. This has led to tax exemptions, access to special loan facilities and preferential purchasing policies. If the co-ops are wound-up, the value of assets cannot be distributed to members – providing a protection that the benefits of the co-ops cannot be removed as a reward for a small number of people. 

Does the experience of social co-ops provide a model that could be adopted in Northern Ireland? The interview with John Restakis can be heard here. John is talking with Paul Gosling, who has written a study on Italy’s social co-ops. 

The Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.    


Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council. 


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