Gdansk WISE cluster report

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From Gdansk social economy conference

Work integration social enterpises (WISEs), meeting in Gdansk on 28th June 2008, made moves to set up a European network to improve information exchange and lobbying.

On 28th June 2008, DIESIS (European and International Research and Development Service for the Social Economy, Co-operatives and Employee-owned Enterprises) led the cluster WISE: Work Integration Social Enterprises, chaired by its president, Gianluca Pastorelli.

DIESIS’s mission is to support the development of the social economy and, in particular, of co-operatives and social enterprises in Europe and in the world through the implementation of knowledge-based activities, such as training, project design, consulting and advisory services, technical assistance and research.


In the context of this cluster, Mr Pastorelli explained that social economy is an important source of jobs and entrepreneurship, including for people with poor qualifications or whose capacity for work is reduced. It can enable the most disadvantaged to exercise some kind of gainful activity or to create employment in areas without mainstream companies and employers (peripheral areas, remote rural areas). It also provides vital social services and assistance that are often overlooked in the market economy and plays a key role in involving participants and European citizens more fully in society since stakeholders, i.e. workers, volunteers and users, are as a rule involved in management.

So it is possible to say that social economy has proved to be very successful in providing work opportunities to disadvantaged groups.

A specific term has emerged in recent years in Europe to refer to work-integration initiatives within the social economy: Work Integration Social Enterprises (WISEs).

WISEs are autonomous economic entities whose main goal is to help poorly qualified unemployed people who are at risk of permanent exclusion from the labour market. These enterprises integrate them back into work and society in general through productive activity. The organisations participating in this cluster are concrete examples of organisations dealing with work integration in this way.

Participant presentations

Among the participants were:

  • The Barka Foundation (Poland) is an innovative organisation with a comprehensive model that covers different types and levels of social inclusion programmes, clearly motivated by a belief in self-help and unfettered by charity, which has a palliative approach that encourages service users to choose “paths of least resistance”.
  • Second Chance (Germany) is an EQUAL project promoted by BAG Arbeit (the national federation for social integration firms targeting the long-term unemployed). The project has helped social integration and training firms in the electronics recycling sector to maintain their market position by providing them with an impressive range of practical tools and solutions for companies needing to re-organise.
  • Job-TransFair GmbH (Austria) is a social profit organisation which is occupied with “non-profit-personnel-leasing”. Therein it strongly focuses on the abilities of its short-term employees.
  • Legacoop Sociali (Italy) is the association of social co-operative members of Legacoop. It uses different tools and actions to develop promotional activities, training and research in the field of social and active labour policies.
  • COOP Cauto (Italy) is a type B social cooperative, born in 1995, that has the purpose to socially promote the work integration of disadvantaged people, in particular those who are seriously marginalised.
  • KSL Civic Association for Adult Learning (Finland) is officially recognised as an adult education institute with the objective of developing working life within social economy organisations.
  • SYNAPSIS Foundation (Poland) deals with autistic persons and their families. It has been created in the framework of the “Partnership for Rain Man” funded by the European Social Fund – EQUAL programme. It employs 24 persons with autism and 20 job trainers.
  • Association “Disabled Persons for the Environment – EKON” (Poland) was established in 2003 with the dual objective of creating opportunities for the physically and mentally disabled and promoting ecologically-friendly living by collecting and managing recyclable waste.
  • The “Teatr Grodzki Bielskie Association” (Poland) deals with the involvement of mentally and physically disabled persons, young people with behavioural problems, people from dysfunctional environments etc. in cultural and artistic activities.


The presentation of each organisation and their key figures raised some questions that were discussed.

Asian competition

After a question about how to deal with the Asian market, Pekka Pattiniemi gave his personal experience, underlining that the co-operative he represents had to stop the production of some goods because of the hard competition of Chinese products and prices.

There was a shared opinion about the need to lobby the European Institutions to fight against this kind of (sometimes) unbearable competition.

Access to public markets

Discussing the success of social co-operatives in work inclusion, the Polish participants explained how in Poland public authorities don’t understand exactly what social enterprises do: they are not mentioned in legal texts, so consequently it is really difficult to create or improve a public-private partnership in this sector.

This reminded participants of the Italian situation, where a sort of competition can be observed between the public and the private sectors. This discussion raised the interest of participants (Finnish and Polish ones in particular) in the role of Italian co-operatives, especially the B-type ones, in public tenders.

Thomas Sadowski analysed the Polish situation, pointing out that Poland is undergoing a deep and radical change that is re-establishing the basis of the state. In this context, Barka has been able to establish some partnerships linking private and public sectors as well as local authorities. To do so, Barka is trying to avoid foreign influences, because the risk in this delicate situation is to be helped by other countries or organisations which could later claim part of the income as well as a key role in the management of the new established entities or policies.

Consequently, public authorities would not be able to be responsible for the development of all the key sectors, in particular for the social economy one. This is the reason why they are looking for other national experiences and improving the exchange of good practices, in the effort to establish a strong Polish social economy.

Next steps

The overall result of this debate was a broader knowledge of how WISEs work in other countries and what could be done to improve the outcomes and even how to influence national policies. It was particularly useful to understand, as Luca Pastorelli anticipated, that one of the major differences between the different types of WISEs is their legal framework. It is up to governments to ensure adequate legal and institutional frameworks for work integration social enterprises. Where there are specific legal provisions for WISEs (no matter if there is only one model, as in Italy, or several legal schemes, as in France), social enterprises can prosper and provide benefit.

The outcome of the meeting was fully positive, and it laid the foundations for further collaboration among the different participant organisations, as well as the proposal to create a WISE network, to allow a regular exchange of good practices and a more structured lobby of the European Institutions.

Notes by Alberto Curatolo, DIESIS

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