Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Workers' cooperative and Paternalism

I'm finally back in Siem Reap, after spending 2 months in Singapore. The weather here is scorching, but we have not yet come to the hottest month, April, when temperatures hit 40 degrees. We had some respite when it rained about a week ago, and I was just musing how Cambodia does not have the lightning storms that Singapore has. Lightning strikes very low where my parents live in the northeast of Singapore, which I find scary.

I have many new thoughts about Bloom and Cambodia after the time spent in Singapore. Primarily my thoughts are on how much potential there is for Bloom outside of Cambodia and how I need to get the workers' cooperative started asap so I can live somewhere else where I can better contribute to the business.

As followers of Bloom will know, the aim for Bloom has always been to be a workers' cooperative. (Someone in Singapore asked me, why not set it up as one then, instead of a social enterprise? Well, in a cooperative, the workers run the business democratically, sharing the means of production, the decisions and the profits as they see fit. Currently the workers are ill-equipped to do this, because they do not have the business skills and the funding, and these are the two areas where I can help. So for now, Bloom is a social enterprise, i.e., a business with social objectives; it would be a lie to call it a cooperative--not that this has stopped other sickening people in this country from claiming their privately-owned business to be a cooperative).

My biggest challenge is to get the team to want to own the business. For many of the women (and this is true of workers everywhere), they just want to turn up for work, sew their bags, get paid at the end of the month and not worry about the business. They want me to continue being the kind boss that I am, treat them well, as I shoulder the "big picture" problems. More and more often now, I have been thinking how wrong-headed I have been, to assume everyone is like me, wanting to have direct ownership of the business that you work for. Because don't you want to see the fruits of your labour accrue to you instead of someone else? Don't you think it is fair, that you, as the worker, makes the decisions that would affect your job? Apparently, not so.

Increasingly I think my idea is no different from paternalism: I am telling the Cambodian team I know what is best for them. Listen to me, I know what's best for you, even if you don't want it.

So I vacillate between wondering if Bloom should remain a social enterprise or whether the workers' cooperative idea can become a reality. But I never intended for Bloom to be my own personal company; I've only ever wanted to be able to leave the Cambodians a business that will help sustain their livelihoods and something they will be proud to call their own.

At the same time I do worry it will fall apart if I leave--I know of one case where American missionaries set up a project and left it to the Khmer team and it fell apart. In the end a Cambodian who had lived overseas bought it at a bargain price and proceeded, privately, to change its mission and structure, but kept its name. It's now a sole proprietorship despite appearances to the contrary.

Other times I am optimistic. I think the younger generation are different--more ambitious and willing to learn and take risks. Bloom made it a point to hire uneducated and poor single mothers in their late 30s and early 40s, and this generation of Cambodians which grew up during the Khmer Rouge rule has a very different worldview from the young. The middle-aged women seem happy to follow, but not lead.

I am lucky to have Sina, the young man who is managing the business in Phnom Penh. He seems genuinely interested and a friend of mine is paying for his university education so his English is improving all the time, which makes it easier for me to teach him stuff. I just got Sina to come up to Siem Reap for four days so I was able to sit with him and share my plans now for Bloom. It is still the same plan, but now we are working towards a deadline. I want to be able to live somewhere else where I can be more helpful to Bloom, where purchasing power is greater so we make more money for the same amount of effort, and where it is easy to do global business.

Expensive courier costs, bank and Internet fees-- these are just some of the obstacles to growing our business here. And let us not forget the corruption, which causes inefficiencies--what are the true costs of doing business in Cambodia, minus all the bribes? One will never know.

We'll see if I succeed in this. Life is never easy, and plans go awry all the time, but I think it's good to have a plan and an exit strategy because people, me included, like the future to be clear.

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