Originally published in Pro Bono Australia
Robyn Kaczmarek is the founder and managing director of The Co-operative Life, Australia’s first worker-owned cooperative in social care services. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Kaczmarek worked in the aged care sector, but became disillusioned with the poor working conditions she witnessed.
Looking to combat the low pay and tough conditions involved in caring, she formed The Co-operative Life, a worker-owned cooperative providing disability and aged care services.
The cooperative began operating in 2013 with a single employee, but has grown to the point where it now has 75 staff members.
In this week’s Changemaker, Kaczmarek discusses the benefits of a cooperative, explains how the business will operate during the roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and reveals why she grows flowers in her spare time.
What is your professional background and what led you to form The Co-operative Life?
I started life as a naturopath, studying a naturopathy degree in 1989. I fell in love with Chinese medicine so I went to UTS and studied acupuncture. I opened up a clinic in Mosman and was working there.
In 2008 [a change in circumstances] meant I needed to get some flexible part-time work… and so I decided to go into aged care. I was working for an agency and basically was left on my own to go out and see people. I’d done my basic training and never saw anybody from the office, I didn’t have any contact with anybody and I was going out and was expected to deal with the situations that I saw in people’s houses.
So that means turning up to somebody’s house on your own, knocking on the door having never been introduced to them, and figuring out from a written care plan what you actually need to do. I don’t think that is very fair either for the support worker or for the person receiving the care. And then the contract would end and you would tell them this is the last day of coming and there’d be no other communication with them and they didn’t know what was happening.
So I started to have a look around at what else was available and decided I would become a case manager. I put myself through a diploma of coordination of community services and started to get private clients. And of course when you start to do that then you start to need staff. I was in this dilemma of not wanting to start an agency like what existed, and I thought I wanted to do something a bit different because we really needed to start looking after our staff better. We needed to be making sure they had got good jobs. We needed to be providing support for them in a tough environment.
So I started searching on Google and I found Home Care Associates which was in New York, and that started with a couple of employees from migrant backgrounds and they realised that if they could train [migrant] people up, then they could be the providers of much needed care for the older people in the community. And they started off as a cooperative.
I thought that was a pretty good idea and then I started reading a bit more and there was one in the UK, which was called Sunderland Home Care Associates and so I started researching that and thought we should start one of those here, because it gives the staff a voice in their work.
Staff were able to be decision makers within their working environment, but also as a worker-owned cooperative they could all share if there was any surplus. Low paid workers could get bonuses at the end of the year or get money from shares. So that was pretty much the start of where the cooperative came from.
Did you face a lot of challenges setting the cooperative up?
Yes because nobody knew about cooperatives. There was no BCCM (Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals) at that stage, so it was just going and finding anybody that had ever known about a cooperative – but we’re the first worker-owned cooperative in social care services. And I think even at the time that we registered, we might have been one of the first worker-owned cooperatives period. There was no documentation, there was no examples of what to do.
To form a cooperative you had to have a minimum of five people that would be directors on the board. So I just sent a spam email to anybody that was on my email list and asked if anybody wanted to do something different in the aged care/disability space and I was lucky enough to get four people that replied.
[There was] pretty much a kitchen table discussion over the next 12 months, looking for information, deciding what we wanted to do. Because when you form a cooperative you’ve got to have your constitution set out and you’ve got to do a business plan. And so we did that for nearly 18 months. We got registered in July 2013 with the fair trade cooperatives registry in Bathurst and we started trading in October that year.
We had one customer and one staff member, but we didn’t borrow any money. The only thing we got was from Bank Australia – an overdraft of $15,000 in case we needed to use that – but I must say we’ve never had to use it. So we started with not a cent and were able to set up a business. And today we’ve got 75 staff.
Given your organisation’s success, do you think cooperatives can become more prevalent and mainstream in Australia in the future?
Yes and it’s a really good model because it’s local and it involves people that are usually passionate about what they want. The obstacles to that though, is that Australians don’t know a lot about cooperatives.
The BCCM here have been fantastic, putting together a lot of documents and a lot of stuff about how to start a cooperative. But it seems to be that in Europe and in the UK and the US, cooperatives are really common over there, and people seem to just know what a cooperative is. That hasn’t happened in Australia. And so the cooperative model or a member-owned organisation is not really that well-known and people don’t quite understand it.
And it’s about ownership. You own the business or you co-own the business in the good times and the bad. So we have to do a lot of education for people that join our business because they don’t know anything about it. So that’s been a bit of an obstacle because it’s a slow process. But we’re getting there. And if we start to get the ball rolling, people can start to understand what’s happening.
What are your future plans for the business, especially as the NDIS full-scheme roll out gets underway?
What’s happening with a lot of organisations with the NDIS is that they’ve really stirred the pot with setting a price. And so in the future I think there’ll be a lot of market failure, as organisations both large and small realise that they can’t afford to run what they’ve been doing. And the fear of that which we’ve experienced, is that there’ll be people unemployed because most of them are casual, and there will also then be participants no longer receiving that service and will be looking for new people.
We’ve had that experience in the New England area, where existing organisations decided to step out of the disability space. There was 26 employees that were going to be sacked. And there was also up to 40 to 60 participants who would then have no services. So we were contacted and were asked if we could step in and so we made sure that all of the legal stuff had been done and redundancies had been paid out by that organisation.
And then when the final day of work happened for those people, we were seamlessly able to transition them to employment with the cooperative and we were able to take on all their NDIS service agreements and contracts with these people. So we really were able to keep people employed and were able to keep services going and I think that’s going to be a trend.
If people are in that situation I think that they need to know there is another option and that we can afford the NDIS prices. It’s a really tight market… but we’re still making a very small profit and that profit we actually share with our members at the end of the year as a shared dividend.
The second thing that we’re doing is with the NDIS workforce development fund… but we have to think smart about who is available to work and who needs a job. So we’re looking at targeting migrants and putting them through an education program in partnership with a few organisations that can help us with understanding the situations of being a migrant and the obstacles of them being employed.
The benefit of that is they are bringing a lot of young people in the disability industry, and we want young people. We’ve already got quite a few people that we employ that way. And cooperatives, by being co-owned, provide good jobs to people. They’re not just given a number, they’re involved in the business and the running of the business.
There’s a lot of information shared for them and we’re really working now on that engagement with our employees and our members. So there’s a two way conversation going between them and us so they do really feel involved. We’re approaching those organisations now so that we can form partnerships and can put a bid in for getting that practice up and running.
What does a typical day look like for you running The Co-operative Life?
At the moment we’ve got policies and procedures that we’re doing because there’s new standards coming in with the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework. We’re currently reviewing all of our current practices and seeing that they’re in line with our business practice.
We’re also doing something a bit different in the field as well in that we’ve got small self-managed teams that we’re creating. It’s a better way to get people involved in their care by having small teams. They also self-manage so that there’s no management level. So we’re developing that as we go. All of our policies and procedures have to be written to reflect the practice that we do in the field.
We’ve got meetings for the field staff to be looking at all the policies and procedures and updating those. So I start the policies, give it to them and then they approve them and give them back to me, and then I store them in preparation for when we have an audit.
The rest of my time is spent reading books on ownership and thinking about ownership. At the moment we’re forming a members council. The members that we currently have, we want them to be involved in more decision making and information sharing. We have two classes of members, we have employee members and we have capital members. But there’s only seven positions on the board which is a small amount.
So we’re now developing committees so that people can still be involved on the board and one of those is the workers councils, another one is a safe and effective practices council and the other one is an HR council. So I am instigating all of that to be happening at the moment, so that the front-line workers feel they’ve really got a say.
What do you like to do in your spare time away from work?
I grow flowers. Because we don’t have any real spare money in the cooperative, it’s a really tight budget. I think it’s a 3 per cent profit margin that we’re working off in NDIS, so there’s not a lot of money to go around. So I grow flowers, I cut them and make them into bouquets… and then I give them as thank yous for our workers.