These are uncertain times for printing company Fingerprint Co-operative Ltd
in Cape Town, South Africa. The company’s prized printing machine has seized up. There’s a lull in drumming up new business. Now the workers are worried about a succession plan for the 29-year-old-company. Time for the company to arbitrary close and retrench the employees? Not at Fingerprint – for here workers take the decisions themselves.
Fingerprint is a worker cooperative, one of about 50 operating in Western Cape Province. In a worker cooperative, all the employees have a stake in the business and an equal vote in the way it runs. Historically, worker co-ops have held the most appeal when things seemed perilous for workers. Take, for instance, the conditions in factories in South Africa in the 1980s. Bosses didn’t tolerate workers who joined unions or politics. It’s no wonder that the founders of Fingerprint, Issy Engelbrecht (70) and his friend Brian Arendse (now deceased), found themselves jobless one day over 30 years ago.
“After we were laid off due to our activism, we couldn’t find a job anywhere in South Africa in the printing sector. So we crossed the border into Mozambique and Zimbabwe to find work, and joined the black consciousness movement at the time,” says Issy, speaking at the co-op’s office in Elsies River.
Issy and Brian still couldn’t find work and they returned to South Africa after some time. But something was different. In the political field, they’d come across the concept of worker cooperatives and loved it.
“We thought it was a noble concept – that workers owned the same shares, first of all. That gave everyone equal rights – one vote, one person, equal shares,” says Issy.
So, Issy and Brian began planning a new printing venture. The name for the co-op came about one glorious weekend as they chatted over drinks. They’d wracked their brains in vain trying to find the perfect name for the nascent outfit. On that weekend outing, one person glanced at Issy’s right hand and noticed the missing finger.
“Why don’t you name it Finger Printing Co-operative Ltd,” the person had quipped. Somebody else at the gathering suggested ‘Fingerprints’. Eventually, they settled on ‘Fingerprint Co-operative Ltd’.
“We thought the name was catchy, non-political and aptly described what we aspired to offer – a quality and accurate service,” says Issy.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today Fingerprint Co-operative is thriving despite the few challenges. The company rakes in some R2.5 million annually and has an investment fund of over one million rands. From two people at inception in 1989, the co-op grew to 11 members and currently has four (two in their twenties and two over 50). Fingerprint has served clients in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Tanzania.
“The investment fund is a feat for our small co-op because it makes us creditworthy. Banks can provide the financing we need to deliver big contracts. It also shows the bank that we know how to work with money,” he says.