Can a care co-op cure the ills of private health?

More than 200 unionized workers at Duncan’s Sunridge Place were recently given pink slips.

This came after the owner of the seniors care facility reached an agreement to sell the operation to a Vancouver-based firm.

Layoffs are effective in early June, when the deal should be finalized.

The announcement caught many off-guard.  Caregivers, residents and their families are concerned about the disruption and what it could mean for those receiving care.

Sunridge employees also fear the new owner may contract out their jobs, or re-hire them through a sub-contractor at a lower wage. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture, especially when you consider this is a publicly funded facility.

The situation at Sunridge is part of a much bigger problem.

During the last 30 years we have seen a major shift in the advanced industrialized world, with governments increasingly moving the delivery of social care away from the public sector to private contractors.

In British Columbia, the private sector is now delivering the bulk of our residential care for seniors, with the provincial government spending about $1 billion a year contracting services.

Yet many are unhappy with the growing role of the private sector, citing lower staffing levels and poorer quality of care.

In Italy, a new approach has arisen that affirms the role of the public sector and offers a real alternative to privatization.

Pioneered in the 1970s, social co-operatives are democratically controlled by their members, and have a legally defined mandate to promote the general community interest.

These co-ops typically include a wide range of members, including health professionals, beneficiaries and their families, volunteers and public institutions.

Besides caring for seniors, these social enterprises also provide services to the most vulnerable and marginalized in society, including people with physical and developmental disabilities, minors at risk, and people with drug addictions.

There are now 7,000 of these publicly funded social co-operatives in Italy, employing 280,000 workers.  In Bologna, 87 percent of the city’s social services are provided by co-ops.

Social co-operatives are generally very cost effective, service quality is high, and workers are more satisfied with their job and work environment compared to their counterparts in the private sector.

And the vast majority of workers in these enterprises are unionized.

Like any good idea, the Italian model has since taken root in other parts of Europe and spread across the Atlantic to the USA and Canada.

Would an Italian-style social co-operative work in the Cowichan Valley?

The idea was first proposed as a way to keep the doors open at the Cowichan Lodge seniors care home, but, unfortunately, our decision-makers were uninterested.

Now may be as good of a time as any to put the co-operative back on the table.  Because privatization is clearly not working for seniors, workers or the community.

Rob Douglas is Constituency President of the Cowichan Valley NDP.  He writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial and can be reached at douglas.robert.g@gmail.com. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the NDP.

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