Why Worker Cooperatives in the Tech Sector? 

Worker housing by Argentina’s first cooperative, El Hogar Obrero, photo by Martín A. Aurand, under Creative Commons license.

It is unusual for worker cooperatives to exist in the tech sector. Tech sector jobs are considered high-skilled, high-paid, and stable. Leading tech companies, including Google, have consistently been ranked among the best places to work for 15 consecutive years by various industry surveys and reports. Historically, cooperatives have emerged in sectors characterized by lower salaries, such as manufacturing and retail, or as components of economic development initiatives. Although worker cooperatives are relatively rare in the tech sector, they are not confined to any specific industry. Worker cooperatives operate as businesses in which ownership and management are in the hands of the workers. Here, each worker has a voice and a vote, contrasting with the ‘one share, one vote’ principle seen in investor-owned businesses.

For my presentation at the ICDE 2024-2025 Fellowship, I will conduct a comparative study of two federations of tech worker cooperatives: one in Argentina, led by SoberaniaX, and another in the UK, guided by EthiX. Throughout my research, I will use pseudonyms to refer to these federations and their associated entities.

In my research, I explore how two federations of tech worker cooperatives navigate the balance between adhering to the International Cooperative Alliance‘s cooperative principles and meeting the pragmatic needs of sustaining a business. I describe this balance—the tension between idealism (cooperative principles) and pragmatism (business operations)—as ‘hacking cooperation.’ This ‘hacking’ process leads to diverse forms of worker cooperatives, influenced by the economic context, the history of the cooperative movement in each country, and their positions within the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) global supply chain.

Why am I focusing on a comparative study of tech worker cooperative federations in Argentina and the UK? Primarily, these countries host the most developed ecosystems of tech worker cooperatives globally, unmatched in scale and organization. Unlike other nations, which might boast a single tech worker cooperative, Argentina and the UK feature a rich variety of cooperatives of varying sizes within this sector. SoberaniaX, established in 2012, is the pioneering organization in Argentina, creating the world’s first federation of worker cooperatives in the Information and Communications Technology Sector. By 2023, this federation included around 35 tech worker cooperatives, encompassing 500-600 workers. Its UK counterpart, EthiX Coop, was founded in 2016 and, as of 2023, comprised about 40 tech worker cooperatives with over 200 workers. 

Secondly, the tech sector plays a pivotal role in global economic development. Given the escalating significance of digital transformation and the expanding application of artificial intelligence (AI), the tech sector’s influence is poised to remain substantial for the foreseeable future.

Thirdly, the case studies in Argentina and the UK are set in distinctly different national contexts, offering varied insights into how cooperative principles are balanced with the pragmatic necessities of sustaining a business. These differences afford both within- and across-country variation in applying cooperative principles, stemming from disparities in socio-economic development, cooperative culture, institutional support, and positioning within the global tech supply chain. The UK, a major player on the global stage economically, financially, politically, and culturally, exemplifies a Global North country with approximately 68 million people and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of $47,000. London, the world’s leading financial center for nearly two centuries, further underscores the UK’s prominence. As a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the UK’s role in international development is significant. Additionally, English, serving as a lingua franca and the primary language for most software used in the tech industry, positions the UK uniquely in the global context.

Argentina, a “Global South” country with an emerging economy, has a smaller influence on global politics compared to the United Kingdom. With a population of 45 million and a GDP per capita of $11,000, Argentina’s economic footprint is distinct from the UK’s. Both nations are part of the G-20, an international forum comprising the world’s 20 largest economies, which includes 19 countries and the European Union. While both are founding members of the United Nations, the UK’s role is accentuated by its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, granting it veto power over binding UN Resolutions.

Fourthly, notable differences exist within the ICT value chain between the two countries. The ICT industry’s value chain includes a broad spectrum of production and value-adding activities essential for the development and support of its products and services, encompassing software, hardware, and services within a globally interconnected ecosystem. Typically, the design of products and services is concentrated in Global North countries, like the UK, which engage in the high-value, innovative aspects of the process. Conversely, Global South countries, such as Argentina, tend to focus on development and the more labor-intensive tasks within the value chain.

When I talk about the tech sector in both countries, I refer to the provision of services in the ICT industry, not the production of hardware. In this context, the UK sits on top of the ICT value chain, whereas Argentina is an outsourcing or back-office support location. English is the lingua franca of business, but also the international banking system in the UK is robust and considered stable. For instance, the UK has never formally defaulted on its government debt, while Argentina has defaulted on its sovereign debt nine times since 1816. Also, Argentina has in recent years experienced the highest inflation rates in more than 30 years, thus forcing many tech firms, including tech worker cooperatives to work for foreign clients, who can pay them in US dollars, and thus they can hedge against inflation and currency devaluations.

Fifth, both countries boast a pioneering history in the realm of cooperatives and worker cooperatives. The UK’s Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers has served as a beacon for the modern cooperative movement since the 19th century. In contrast, over the last two decades, Argentina has emerged as an innovator with the rise of worker-recovered enterprises, or empresas recuperadas, and the initiative to establish a transnational federation of tech worker cooperatives, referred to here as Astrateq. Argentina’s vision for cooperatives extends beyond national borders to a global scale. Some members of SoberaniaX in Argentina have initiated Astrateq, a worldwide federation that connects over 60 tech worker cooperatives from approximately 20 countries, representing around 800 tech workers globally.

Why is this research relevant? Why worker cooperatives in the tech sector? 

Worker cooperatives have been scantily examined in the fields of management and labor relations literature. This oversight is even more pronounced for worker cooperatives within the ICT industry, particularly those that leverage emerging digital technologies to establish worker-owned and -managed organizational structures across geographic boundaries. In recent years, tech workers have initiated alternatives to the dominant tech firms. For instance, there are cooperative counterparts to Amazon (Fairmundo, based in Germany), Airbnb (FairBnB, a platform cooperative with a presence in Italy and several other European countries), and YouTube (MeansTV, a small platform co-op in the United States)

In addition to alternatives to traditional firms in the tech sector springing up, there is an important recognition from the United Nations about the important role cooperatives play in development. In the 2023 resolution A/C.3/78/L.11, the United Nations (UN) declared 2025 the Year of cooperatives for the second time. In the resolution, the UN recognizes that cooperative contribute to: “decent employment generation, poverty and hunger eradication, education, social protection – including universal health coverage -, financial inclusion and the creation of affordable housing options across a variety of economic sectors in urban and rural areas.” Given the UN’s recognition of the importance of cooperatives, coupled with the recent tech layoffs, worker cooperatives serve to provide a potential alternative to improving job quality and conditions for tech workers.

By leveraging digital technologies and their proficiency in remote work and management, tech worker cooperatives have the potential to expand on an international scale—a goal that the Astrateq federations aim to achieve. My research to date reveals distinct strategic focuses between Argentina and the UK. In Argentina, worker cooperatives have been compelled to address inflationary pressures by engaging with foreign clients capable of paying in highly valued US dollars. Conversely, UK cooperatives prioritize projects that align with their individual and organizational values, specifically those with social and environmental benefits. The relative economic stability in the UK facilitates the growth and development of firms, including cooperatives. Moreover, there is a pronounced emphasis on governance in the UK, with a preference for sociocracy to prevent the emergence of large, potentially hierarchical structures—precisely the type of organizations that UK workers aim to avoid or depart from.

In both Argentina and the UK, worker cooperatives encounter difficulties in recruiting talented workers. The challenge lies not only in finding individuals with the requisite technical skills but also those who possess the appropriate mindset and attitude for working within a cooperative environment. Due to limited awareness of worker cooperatives in both countries, sourcing suitable candidates proves challenging.

Another significant hurdle is salary competitiveness. Generally, programmers can secure higher wages outside the tech worker cooperative sector in both countries. In Argentina, this disparity was accentuated by high inflation and fluctuating exchange rates between the Argentine peso and the US dollar, which, at one point, doubled the purchasing power for those earning in US dollars. Although this gap narrowed to about 20% as of December 2023, the disparity remains a concern. In the UK, the cost of living crisis compels workers to make practical career choices, with some opting to prioritize job satisfaction and social impact by working with non-profits, philanthropic organizations, and government entities, often in closer proximity to family in rural areas.

Furthermore, the growth and scalability of worker cooperatives in both countries are constrained by a focus on the service economy—scaling necessitates securing more business and recruiting additional billable workers. In the UK, the emphasis on operating within the ‘charity sector,’ characterized by lower rates than the commercial sector and a concentrated focus on governance processes, further limits cooperative scaling. This is reflected in the smaller average size of cooperatives in the UK, with 8-9 workers per cooperative, compared to Argentina’s average of 26 workers per cooperative.

Another notable distinction lies in the growth ambitions of worker cooperatives in Argentina compared to those in the UK. In Argentina, the conversation centers not on whether to grow but on how to facilitate expansion, debating whether to increase membership within existing cooperatives or to establish more tech worker cooperatives. Conversely, in the UK, growth tends to be more modest, with a greater emphasis on enriching the membership experience rather than on maximizing expansion. Argentine cooperatives, with a global perspective on scaling, have spearheaded the foundation of Astrateq and fostered connections with approximately 70 worker cooperatives across 20 countries, representing 800 tech workers worldwide. Meanwhile, EthiX focuses on the development of the UK’s tech worker cooperative sector, whereas SoberaniaX aims at both national and international development of tech worker cooperatives.

As a fellow at the Institute for Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE) at The New School in New York City, my objective is to compile a report that will contribute to my doctoral research. This report will explore the diverse forms of tech worker cooperatives that emerge from the variations within and between Argentina and the UK.

I am eager to collaborate with other fellows and researchers on this topic and warmly welcome any opportunities for collaboration. If you share an interest in the evolution of tech worker cooperatives or have insights into the sector, please don’t hesitate to reach out.