Thursday, October 23, 2008

Setting up a Workers' Cooperative in Cambodia

Me (front left) and the Bloom team.

This is an interview I gave to Singapore-based Currently in Singapore there is a flurry of interest and activity (some state-sponsored) in social entrepreneurship--there is even a "Social Entrepreneur of the Year" competition. I'll write more on Singapore and this "sexy" topic (to use a term from my journalist days) in another post.

1. Tell me about your organization Bloom and how it addresses problem(s) you are trying to solve in Cambodia.

Bloom is a social enterprise set up in September 2006 to provide jobs for poor Cambodians, especially women. I first came to Phnom Penh for a holiday with my friend Dale Edmonds, who runs Riverkids Project ( and during that trip I witnessed an impoverished mother trying to sell her new-born baby for USD100. The woman was subsequently jailed and I decided there and then I would start a business that would provide good wages for single mothers--may they never know such desperation.

2. Coming from Singapore where social entrepreneurship is still poorly understood, what was your inspiration to establish Bloom?

I am not so concerned with social entrepreneurship. From day one I have been aiming to set up a workers' cooperative. A workers' coperative is a cooperative owned and democratically controlled by its employees. There are no outside owners in a worker cooperative -- only the workers own shares of the business. This is why I have rejected cash offers in exchange for equity--I want Bloom to remain in the control of our workers.

In a workers' cooperative, workers own the business, govern and grow it. They control the resources and determine the work processes and the prices of their products and services. Before Bloom can get to the stage of a workers' cooperative though, our Cambodian team needs to learn business skills so the cooperative will be viable. As well, they need funding. These are the areas where I can play a part. This is the reason why I am completely transparent with the workers about Bloom--if the cooperative is to work, they will need to know *everything* about running the business. If you really want to know more about workers' cooperatives, you can find out more from Spain's Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. The MCC is Spain's seventh largest corporation and the largest in the Basque Country. In 2006 the MCC contributed 3.8% towards the total GDP of the Basque Country.

3. What were the initial challenges you faced (e.g. cultural differences, red tape, personal sacrifices etc.) ? How did you overcome them?

Language is a big challenge. The people I hire are poor with little education. Some are illiterate, so the only way to communicate with the team is to learn to speak Khmer. Other problems especially for a Singaporean is the initial shock at how lawless this place can be--you need to adapt fast and play many things by ear or you won't survive. You need to be clear what your ethics are--do you, for instance, pay a bribe so you can continue with your work or do you think you're thereby feeding a corrupt system? Do you keep your head down and avoid trouble or do you speak up when you see injustice? When you move to a new place, you need to figure out the rules governing that particular society.

3. How do you get the community involved in supporting your efforts?

Which community are you referring to? I work with the community of ethical consumers through guerilla marketing. I have no advertising and marketing budget, so I have to spread the word about Bloom creatively. I have a Facebook group with more than 200 members and Amnesty International ordered a lot of bags from us after stumbling across my blog. Bloom's customers are largely ethical consumers--in that way we are somewhat preaching to the converted, but I hope through this group of "opinion leaders" (to use a marketing term) other consumers will realise there is a way we can shop without hurting other people. As I say in the Bloom Manifesto, "We believe if you know the truth, you would not be an accessory to the exploitation of workers." I genuinely believe that most people would not want to be involved in something, much less buy it, if they know that someone else was hurt in the making of that item.

4. What is your greatest source of inspiration?

To see justice for working people all over the world, and by justice I mean fair wages and fair working conditions. I watched a fascinating movie the other day starring Vanessa Redgrave and Angelina Jolie. It's called "The Fever" and it tells of a posh English woman who has never thought about things, specifically economic relations, as she swans through life, buying white linen sheets and collecting art. She realises, quite out of the blue, that the coat she wants to buy from a shop did not just materialise from nowhere. The coat has a history--the culmination of all the work that went into the making of the coat, the people who made them and how much they were paid and the conditions under which the people made them. This determined the value of the coat, not some arbitrary price set by the department store. But modern day consumerism detaches consumers from all this. We see a coat and we only think, "I like that coat; it's not expensive" without thinking further how the coat came to be and why it is priced what it is.

4. What is your greatest achievement so far? Tell us about an incident which has made your sacrifices worthwhile.

Getting the order from Amnesty International. Amnesty is an amazing organisation and if you have watched JK Rowling's speech to this year's graduating class at Harvard, you will know she talked about how life-changing working at Amnesty was for her. You can watch the speech on youtube or read it here:

This is what she said and I am repeating it because I find it powerful:
"Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

As for sacrifice, I don't see any of what I am doing as a sacrifice. If you believe strongly in something, you will take steps to achieve it. The hardest thing is living your life truthfully and not making excuses.

6. What is your vision for the future?
The future of Bloom? For it to be a successful workers' cooperative.

7. What do you see as the greatest challenge that lies ahead, in reaching your goals?

So many. Mainly the organisation of the workers' cooperative. People are so different, with different motivations that it is impossible to get them to cooperate without conflict. The role of the manager can also be confusing for workers, if they see themselves to all be on the same level. Also, people have to put aside their own self-interest for the sake of the cooperative. One scenario for example, is the workers wanting to keep all the profits instead of reinvesting it into the business. I am taking things one thing at a time though. The first step is to ensure the workers are also good entrepreneurs in addition to being good employees. Workers have to be helped and trained so that they understand their duties as a boss as well as those as a worker.

8. What are some of the ways in which people from around the world can help you achieve them? (this could be in volunteering, funding, advocacy, contributing specific skills etc.)

Be conscious; be aware of the economic relations that exist between people. Take time to think about important matters. As an educated person, you really have a responsibility to lead your life consciously.


Anonymous said...

nice blog

Anonymous said...

When I am bored and totally restless, I visits this blog. I like the periodic gossips about life in the backwaters and the crappy prison talks for example, but not the social ent bs, which if you ask me is just boring. I dun intend to understand what nonsense that is, but I reckon it must be some type of sickness.

Well, for starters nobody forces anyone against his wishes to do what they do there. If they want to work for a dime, or for free, that is fine. If not, also fine. That choice is theirs. And yours. Who seriously cares anyway. This is a free world, is it not. A much ado about nothing mission is what I seriously think. But the pictures, well I must say they are pretty good. Hmm.. Hope we can see some seafood outings the next time. could we?

Diana Saw said...

Pari Passu,

I'm flattered you visit my blog when you're bored but you are obviously not my target audience. If you think it is a free world you must be either really privileged or simply stupid, most likely both.


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