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Law 381/91 on social cooperation

Main innovative features

08 / 1993

Two years have passed since approval of law 381/91 regulating social cooperatives, and awareness of the innovations introduced by this law has progressively increased. It is article 1,especially, and its assertion that "the social cooperatives have the purpose of poursuing the general interest of the community for human enhancement and the social integration of citizens", which has set the pattern of the legislation and introduced the most significant innovations.

This declaration, in fact, aknowledges the possibility that the goal of the cooperative enterprise is not so much the maximization of the welfare of its associates as the production of wider benefits for the local community and its citizens, especially if these citizens are disadvantaged. The law therefore envisages that a cooperative may operate as a business, that is, that it can perform an organized economic activity in order to produce and exchange goods and services also for solidarist purposes. Law 381 has therefore introduced a new form of cooperative based on the principle of solidarity and operating according to interests external to the structure.

From this conception derive a number of features which, according to the conventional view of the firm, may appear paradoxical: for instance, for figure of the voluntary worker who operates as an entrepreneur, participating in the firm’s risk without receiving any compensation except reimbursement of these expenses.

A second novelty is the entrepreneurial view of the social cooperatives as a specific and specialized instrument for the work integration of disadvantaged subjects (the physically and mentally handicapped, drug addicts, ex-prisoners, etc.); that is, an organization which provides "in the field" vocational training and works for the full social integration of people in difficulties and (if possible)their subsequent work entry outside the cooperative.

Social cooperation has also been empowered to operate, as well as in he field of welfare, also in those of health and education. If one also bears in mind that the social cooperative can acquire specialist skills, medical skills for example, it is clear that it can offer a widely varied range of services, both according to sector (health, welfare, the arts,etc.)and according to the specific skill concerned.

Also important are the innovations within the cooperative movement introduced by the law: It provides a formula whereby the original solidarist and communitarian vocation of cooperativism can be reviwed, in contrast with other sectors of cooperation where it is sometimes only economic and financial aspects that are concentrated upon.Finally, the new conception of a partnership with the public authorities that emerges from the law on social cooperatives should be stressed. This law makes explicit the provisions of article 43 of the italian Constitution which recognizes the equal dignity of the state, local authorities and communities of workers and users in responding to essential needs of general interest.

With approval and implementation of law 381, social cooperatives are no longer to be regarded as merely executors of social services, since they now have the statutory purpose of pursuing the general interest of the community in human enhancement and the social integration of citizens. They are obliged to ensure their democratic management; they are subject to stringent controls taking the form (apart from those that apply to all cooperatives)of an obligatory annual review carried out by the Ministry of Labour and the central confederations.

The public authorities therefore find themselves confronted by an interlocutor which pursues homogeneous goals and which is subjected to tight controls and guarantees.The relationship between the two sides should be one of parity, in which the recognition, definition and execution of joint action, as well as control, are undertaken on the basis of a reciprocal plan and without pre-established subordinacy or superiority.

Furthermore, within a context of profound restructuring of welfare policies, the state and the local authorities are less responsible for the management than they are for formulating guarantees of equity, democracy and transparency, and for encouraging interaction and integration between the various actors involved.This new conception emerges from the text of law 381, which obliges the regional administrations to compile a register of social cooperatives; to issue regulations designed to sustain and develop them; to take cognizance of the findings of the annual inspections to which the cooperatives will be subject; and to document, with due resoect for privacy, the condition of disadvantaged people.

The approval of the law also represents an important step towards the creation of a social code. Together with the national framework law on voluntary organizations (law 266/91), it delineates a scenario, albeit one which still requires clear definition, within which intermediate entities in local communities can operate.

In Italy, social cooperatives are mainly responsible for the management of social services or for productive activities geared to the occupational integration of disadvantaged subjects, especially where these activities require professional skills and constant commitment and where they take the form of services sold to third parties, whether these be local authorities, firms, households or private citizens.

Organized voluntary work, instead, has the specific task of building solidarity and participation, of saveguarding the rights of users, of introducing new services which - if adopted on a permanent basis, require full-time personnel and are marketed - should hopefully evolve into the formula of the social cooperative.

Palabras claves

política social, legislación, innovación social, cooperación

, Italia


Law 381/1991 is bound to have a deep impact in Italy. In the first two years since it has been issued an increasing number of social cooperatives has been recorded both in the North and in the South of the country.


This is a part of a speech pronounced during the meeting "Well being in Europe by strengthening the third sector", held in Barcelona, 27-28 May 1993. This document is part of the documentation given by Felice Scalvini, president of Federsolidarietà, to M.T.Cobelli, during an interview in Brescia (August 1993).


Actas de coloquio, encuentro, seminario,…

BORZAGA, Carlo, LEPRI, Stefano, CGM, CGM, 1993/05/27

IRED NORD (Innovations et Réseaux pour le Développement) - Via Tacito 10. 00193 ROMA. ITALIA. Tel (19)39 6 320 78 49. Fax (19)39 6 320 81 55. E-mail -

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