By CUSP 2015 Special Edition, Translated by Hang Yu NG

Managing a store is about profit maximization. Everything that favors capital accumulation is acceptable—even if there is frequent employee turnover or a lack of interpersonal relationship. Apart from this mainstream approach, do we have another choice? Alternative economic models do exist, but as transnational capital and local financial groups control industries from different sectors, the room for survival of alternative models is often throttled as they could hardly withstand market competition. However, a cooperative store in CUHK, which has been operating for over ten years, is a model of applying the concept of a people-oriented economy.

The United Cooperative Store, located at LG, Benjamin Franklin Centre, was founded by the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association (HKWWA) in November 2011. In 2000, the University renovated the Benjamin Franklin Centre and reserved a place for setting up a convenience store that the Student Union (CUSU) had long been fighting for. Meanwhile, some students from the CUHK Grassroots Concern Group discovered the concept of “cooperative” and were interested in it. They thought that apart from having a spirit of embracing social equality, the University also enjoyed preferential rent, which provided suitable soil for developing cooperatives. More importantly, they understood that cooperatives implement employee autonomy and economic democracy, which hold a fundamentally different relationship from the general production relationship—one in which an enterprise may exploit the employees. They hoped cooperatives could counter the trend of monopoly. At the time before The Link REIT (now renamed as the Link Real Estate Investment Trust) had been listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and Starbucks had not yet entered CUHK, this kind of thought was undoubtedly radical. The Grassroots Concern Group tried to persuade the Staff-Student Centres Management Committee through the CUSU and proposed priority tendering for community groups, which the Committee later passed. In the following summer vacation, the original successful bidder withdrew, and the second choice HKWWA took over and signed a 5-year contract. HKWWA and the students started fundraising; they received donations and interest-free loans, allowing them to successfully gather the $200,000 initiative funding. The members of the Cooperative bought shares and nervously prepared for the opening 3 months later. The members recalled that they were delighted to have successfully opened the business, but they never imagined that the Cooperative would still exist after more than a decade.

Women as Labors: Cooperation and Empowerment Give Strength

This group of grassroots women was unemployed workers due to the relocation of the manufacturing sector outside Hong Kong during the economic transformation or housewives who did not work outside. How did they come together, work hard, and start their business? Women who apply for a job in the United Cooperative Store are required to attend a series of workshops with themes including the Cooperative Store, food manufacturing, store management, and language training. They even have to go through an internship period and pass an assessment before becoming an official member. The key is how the freshmen understand the “Cooperative Store” and whether they are willing and suitable to work together for the long term. A Cooperative member said, “They cannot come in as they want, but they can leave anytime.” If recruiting new members is not an easy task and a substitute cannot be immediately found to fill a vacancy, why would they allow someone to leave anytime? The reason is that the Cooperative Store respects individual freedom, and does not force anyone to sacrifice life for work. If one withdraws, she can take her money paid for shares back. If one comes back within a year, she will even be accepted as a member again.

Apart from the conditions of joining and quitting, there are more special features of the Cooperative. The Cooperative does not have a boss; instead, it is managed by the employees equally. Collective democracy decides all matters including wages, working hours, division of work, and product configuration. Compared to general enterprises, employees are subject to the boss’s will regarding the duty, the pay, and whether one will lose the job. Employees have low status and are treated as production machines. The consequences are overworking, being outsourced, wages arrears, unjustifiable dismissals, and damage to employees right through the use of grey areas in law. It is imaginable that compared with the general employees, Cooperative members can preserve their own dignity.

Cooperation in practice, of course,  is way more complicated than in theory—do grassroots women really know about management? Are housewives (師奶 si1 naai1) capable of working outside? They themselves were also doubtful at the beginning. Unlike enterprises that have hierarchy and job descriptions, every member in the Cooperative Store needs to have a basic understanding of different routines and what exactly they need to do. This offers them a considerable degree of autonomy. Although they have equal rights and responsibilities, it is impossible for everyone to immediately master the skills of keeping the store, ordering products, and accounting, so sometimes able people do work more. As they have various personalities—some are strong and some are shy—sometimes conflicts are unavoidable. Members who seldom deal with workplace conflicts may feel a bit uncomfortable. Under these challenges, economic autonomy seems to be an unattainable concept. The regular meetings of the Cooperative provide a communication platform where members can raise any opinion—they do not need to take orders from a boss or be scared of dismissal. People who sat in the regular meetings would realize that the members need to discuss the Cooperative Store’s operation and persuade one another so as to reach a consensus. The voting system under the majority rule is only adopted when a consensus cannot be reached for a long time. Once, some students suggested the Store sell stirred noodles. While members who agreed thought that satisfying students’ expectations should be prioritized and that may also increase profit, the opposers pointed out that stirred noodles were not as healthy as other products, which did not meet students’ nutritional needs. After repeated discussion and careful consideration, all of them finally agreed to include this new product. Members who had seldom voiced out found that they were respected and could influence the store’s development. Therefore, they have become more confident to raise their opinions even if their change is slow. Grassroots women who used to have no right to speak in public discussions have found strength in the deliberations, “Our insights are broadened, and we are more able to express ourselves.”

Affection for the Students and CUHK

The Cooperative Store opens at the earliest and closes the latest of all services in CUHK, which has benefited many teachers and students. Apart from the normal opening hours 7:30 am to 11:30 pm, special shifts are available every weekday after midnight. After the first contract renewal, some suggested the store should open overnight. Members of the Cooperative Store and Grassroot Concern Group  discussed it, believing the customer flow after midnight is too low for overnight service. However, some students may stay up late at night, so it would be best to take care of their needs. To extend the opening hours without affecting the Cooperative members’ working hours, the Grassroot Concern Group suggested letting students take up voluntary duty late at night, which resulted in the initiation of the Special Shift Plan.

Unlike typical enterprises, the Cooperative Store has always been people-oriented. Making money is important, but it is not the only or ultimate goal. In a world in which alienation pervades and man becomes an economic animal, the Cooperative thinks that customers should not be materialized as purchasing power and amount of revenue. Unlike enterprises that do charity only when having sufficient surplus, the Cooperative Store members made a decision: every link of production and sales must care for people and the environment with a healthy and friendly attitude. Therefore, they pay special attention to the ways of getting along with students and helping one another. Not only has the Grassroot Concern Group assisted in the foundation of the Cooperative Store, but it also helps survey teachers and students with questionnaires regularly so that the Cooperative Store members can understand customers’ expectations and opinions and make improvements. The Cooperative is not merely a shop that sells products. It is also a place that involves students in its planning. The Grassroot Concern Group has posted information about Cooperatives’ notions and social movements at the storefront. The Cooperative and the Grassroot Concern Group work together to hold distinctive activities like “Night Talk @ the Cooperative” and “Poolside Concert.”

 Stand Up for Social Advancement

The Cooperative Store also pays close attention to the labor issues outside the university and has a voice in labor movements. HKWWA often gathers its members to learn about the recent hot topics in society, labor legislation and fiscal policy; every Labor Day and 1 July, the women laborers join the demonstrations together. Before the Statutory minimum wage came into force, the Cooperative had taken the initiative to increase the hourly wage to $33 as suggested by community labor associations; a year after the raise, the Cooperative was not “brought down” by the minimum wage, which proved a reasonable raise brings no harm but good.

As their knowledge and participation increase, they gradually realize that apart from the identity of a shop assistant in their own store, their destinies are so closely tied with other laborers that they should work together to promote social advancement. “Our awareness of social issues has increased and we would stand up and contribute our efforts. It is not only about a particular individual. It relies on collective power.” They opposed the outsourcing of school bus drivers and janitors of the Estates Management Office (EMO), set up street counters and distributed leaflets in Kwun Tong in support of the APM janitors whom Sun Hung Kai Properties’ contractor exploited. When workers of the university were in accidents, steel benders or dock workers went on strikes, or huge natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes in Southeast Asia occurred, the Cooperative held a one-day charity sale and donated the income of that day to the needy. As they can feel that the democratic policies in the Cooperative have empowered them, they care about the democratization of Hong Kong. They discussed the reform of the political system and Occupy Central with other grassroots women, started the charity sale of “Democracy Soap” and glutinous rice ball to raise donations for the “Occupy Central” movement in 2014.

A Store Sparking Hope

These years, the Cooperative Store had gone through lots of changes: the previous narrow storefront had been renovated and expanded; a sink, a refrigerator, storage space, and a printer were added; to support fair trade, new fair trade products including coffee and chocolate were stocked. They started to use environmentally friendly detergent and hand sanitizer and sell eco-friendly soaps and lipsticks handmade by friendly partners to promote a green life; they also paid visits to local farms and sold vegetables from organic (local) family farms nearly at a cost price. Improvements are made in response to the constructive feedback given by teachers and students and facilitated by the support from social groups.

The United Cooperative Store is committed to promoting the cooperative movement. Every year, the Cooperative Store cooperates with CUSU and the Grassroot Concern Group on occasions like Labor Week and Fairtrade Week to introduce labor rights and promote economic concepts including democracy and equality. The success of the CUHK United Cooperative Store has inspired and guided the cooperative experiments in other institutes: cooperative stores founded by women’s associations blossomed in Lingnan University, the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Hong Kong College of Technology (HKCT), and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Outside the campus, the Cooperative Store allied with its friendly partners such as the Greenwise Workers Co-operative Society Ltd. and Kwan Fong Caretakers Cooperative. In 2012, the International Year of Cooperatives, the Cooperative Store held a promotion day in Mongkok to introduce their unique experience to the citizens. Setting up cooperatives is a global movement; while HKWWA would study the development of cooperatives under different cultural backgrounds and political and economic systems, organizations from mainland China and overseas would visit and learn from CUHK United Cooperative Store.

While the Cooperative Store continues to grow, monopoly is becoming more and more common in Hong Kong. The interest of a small group of people has dominated the environment of the majority. Streets and malls have become similar in appearance; the world’s highest working hours per capita is no longer news; and the large number of citizens donating to the strike fund reflects that we can no longer stand the exploitation. The approach of cooperatives is becoming more precious. CUHK is the forerunner of supporting social economy among the institutes in Hong Kong. Without the humanistic spirit and the tradition of student movements that we are proud of—which are like soil and air to nourish this social experiment started by the grassroots—it would be difficult for the United Cooperative Store to blossom. From the Cooperative Store’s example, we see a possible picture of a beautiful society—this is the life experience we originally should have. May this spark, which represents the hope for change, continue to burn in our hearts.


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