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26 February 2015

Trade unions and corporate social responsibility: pragmatism wins out against mistrust

"Despite a very broad picture of scepticism, most unions are embedded in discussions in relation with CSR", declared Chris Rees, a researcher at the Royal Holloway University of London who has recently, with two colleagues from the same university, written a book on trade union attitudes and approaches to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The principal results of this research, conducted between 2011 and 2013 in eleven EU countries, were presented on 24 February last at an ETUI Monthly Forum.

The concept of corporate social responsibility, which originated in the English-speaking world within multinationals keen to display a commitment to social and environmental concerns, has been discussed in the European institutions since the end of the 1990s. While the European trade union movement has been invited to take part in this debate, at the national level numerous trade unions continue to regard CSR as an instrument of the multinationals, perceiving it, in the words of Chris Rees, as "mere rhetoric to improve corporate image with little substance in practice". As a result, he explained "most of the unions have not integrated CSR in their own policy development processes".

The Royal Holloway University researchers point out, however, that the situation is not quite so clear-cut, for trade unions’ attitudes to CSR depend upon numerous factors: upon whether they are operating within a coordinated market economy or a liberal market economy, upon their ideological stance, upon the history of their country, etc. Nor does the fact that the very concept of CSR shows a quite tendency to fluctuate help the trade unions to clarify their position.

The more left-wing the trade union, the less it will be interested in CSR’ was how Lutz Preuss summed up the situation. According to this researcher, it is in Finland that the trade union movement is most open to CSR, a finding that can be explained by the fact that this country is able to boast a highly developed social legislation that endows it, to some extent, with a safety net that can protect it from any undesirable side-effects of negotiations undertaken in the framework of CSR.

The authors thus pinpointed the trade union movement’s major fear concerning CSR, namely, that voluntary undertakings expressed in this type of forum could gradually come to replace the traditional legislative instruments.

"CSR cannot become a substitute for social dialogue", warned Patrick Itschert. The deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) said that the latest communication on CSR from the European Commission, presented in 2011, represented a rather positive development compared with the earlier one that had been so ‘pro-business’ as to prompt the ETUC to discontinue its involvement in the Community discussions on CSR.

By now the concept has become, for the trade union movement, a reality it can no longer afford to ignore, insofar as CSR can, in some kinds of situation, lead to positive effects for society. Such was the substance of the message delivered by Patrick Itschert who, before coming to the ETUC, had been secretary general of the International Textile Workers’ Federation. He proceeded to describe the situation of developing countries where, given a balance of power that is clearly unfavourable to the trade unions, CSR can be an alternative tool for improving workers’ lives and working conditions.

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