Originally published on the Platform Cooperativism Consortium blog
Since its first proposal in 2014, Platform Cooperativism has evolved into a global movement as an alternative to Platform Capitalism. The concept has been adopted in over 546 known projects across 50 countries. The establishment of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC), serving as a knowledge hub for the global community, marked a significant milestone. PCC fosters inspiration, knowledge, outcomes, and impacts—I am a testament to this, considering myself a small yet integral piece of the evidence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I enrolled in the online course ‘Platform Co-op Now!’ and subsequently initiated a project, eventually volunteering as a promoter of Platform Co-ops in Thailand.
In Thailand, several traditional cooperatives are offering products and services through digital platforms. While these may be considered Platform Co-ops, their primary revenue does not stem from the platform but from conventional business operations. This differs from the focus of this blog article, which refers to businesses that operate online through websites or mobile apps and are characterized by democratic decision-making and platform ownership by workers and users. Apart from my project, other notable examples include Homecare Thailand—a domestic work platform owned by the workers, and Thai Therapy—a Thai massage service owned by the masseuses.
On November 27, 2023, Professor Trebor Scholz honored us by accepting our humble invitation to speak in Bangkok. Thanks to the generous support of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Thailand office, we welcomed participants from various sectors, including the ILO, members of the Thai parliament, policymakers, authorities, think tanks, academics, and platform workers. This inspiring talk could be the stepping stone toward a Platform Co-op roadmap in Thailand. The feedback from participants, coupled with my reflections, suggests the following:
Whether a Platform Co-op is a Worker Co-op or a Multi-stakeholder Co-op, worker ownership remains a key. However, from my point of view, the successful establishment of Platform Co-op is almost impossible without backing from various stakeholders in the ecosystem. Although workers possess the experience and expertise in their respective fields, owning and operating a Platform Co-op demands more than just skill on the job. It necessitates at least 1) Initial funding or seed money, 2) Tech support, 3) Diverse skill sets for Platform Cooperators, and 4) Appropriate legislation:
1) Initial funding or seed money
Starting a platform cooperative requires significant funding, which can be a huge investment for platform workers, who often hardly make even their living wage. Building a platform is costly. Though there are several ways to raise money, such as crowdfunding, I believe it’s not easy. There is a role for government support here. Government agencies could initially offer financial help through a fund specifically for platform co-ops. This fund could provide small loans with little or no interest or seed money to those demonstrating a viable platform Co-op business model. There could also be incentives for social investors who want to help. But it is important to remember that these are just to get started. Like other cooperatives, platform co-ops should eventually run and expand on the money they make and what they collect from members. They are all about helping themselves and ensuring that any early financial help does not come with strings attached, like in the venture capital model. The idea is to keep control within the cooperative, ensuring it stays true to its purpose and its members.
2) Tech support
Platform workers know best about their jobs but creating a digital platform is beyond their expertise. This gap is where the tech community has to step in to support the platform cooperative movement. In my own project, I engaged a group of computer engineering students. This arrangement was incredibly fruitful: the students gained valuable experience tackling real-world problems and took pride in knowing their efforts were making a real difference. Their work helped many workers to secure better pay and improved workers’ working conditions. However, there’s a trade-off in this model. Students have academic commitments that can take precedence, often slowing down the project. I learned that professional oversight, at least as mentors, is crucial. I was impressed when Professor Scholz introduced me to tech cooperatives in Argentina and Brazil, FACCTIC, and Coopersystem, which specializes in developing platforms for various civil society organizations, including platform cooperatives. Their model is something I am now trying to replicate by encouraging my students, now graduates, to start their own tech cooperative in Thailand. Such an organization would serve their professional aspirations and strengthen the platform cooperative movement by providing technical support. Additionally, government authorities could also play a pivotal role by hosting events like hackathons and connecting tech experts with workers aiming to launch their platform cooperatives. This could be a game-changer, providing the necessary technical backing and fostering a culture of collaboration and mutual support within the community.
3) Diverse skill sets for Platform Cooperators
There is a need for diverse skill sets to run a platform cooperative. While platform workers possess specialized knowledge in their respective fields, entrepreneurial and management skills are often outside their skill set. This gap is crucial to bridge for the effective operation of a platform Co-op. Knowledge-strengthening programs and/or workshops are needed. There should be an incubator that play a key role in equipping workers with the necessary skills. One noteworthy initiative is UnFound, an accelerator program in the UK designed for aspiring platform cooperatives. UnFound provides training, knowledge, and the essential skills required to successfully establish and run a Platform Co-op. It is a collaborative effort that brings together expertise from the academic world, government authorities, and the cooperative movement, ensuring a comprehensive support system for workers transitioning into entrepreneurs. The involvement of these diverse sectors is vital. Academic institutions can offer theoretical knowledge and research support, government authorities can provide policy guidance and financial aid, and the cooperative movement can share practical insights and peer-to-peer learning opportunities. Programs like UnFound demonstrate the potential of targeted support in empowering workers to not just participate in but actively shape and lead the platform cooperative movement. By providing structured training and resources, they help demystify the complexities of running a business and foster a new generation of cooperative leaders equipped to navigate the challenges of the digital economy.
4) Appropriate legislation
Getting the right laws in place is super important for platform cooperatives, especially here in Thailand. Our cooperative laws are really outdated and they don’t cover workers’ coops. Right now, platform cooperatives might be registered as a company limited or some other kind of business entity and still follow coop principles, but it is different than being officially recognized as a workers’ cooperative. Having laws that really understand and support workers’ coops would make a big difference. It is not just about having a legal title; It is about getting the right kind of support. To make these changes, we need to get the word out. This means political campaigns, and social movements – really making people see why this is such a big deal. It’s about showing that cooperatives are a solid option, not just another business model, but a real alternative to the usual capitalism causing many problems. We’ve got to push this to the national agenda, turn it into a movement, and make significant, lasting changes. It will take time, sure, but it is something we have to do to give platform cooperativism the boost it needs in Thailand.
In summary, the journey toward a robust platform cooperative ecosystem in Thailand is challenging, yet filled with promise. The evolution from an interest to a movement signifies a critical shift towards democratizing our digital economy, where workers’ rights, better working conditions, and collective ownership are not just idealistic goals but tangible realities. By harnessing the collaborative spirit of cooperatives, coupled with strategic support from government, academia, and technology sectors, we can cultivate a fertile ground for platform cooperatives to flourish.