B.2.4.1. Is the application of ‘good practices’ in an SME attributable to a voluntary commitment by management or the result of external market pressures?
Why does an undertaking like ACOME commit itself to ‘good practices’? What practices does it display on the promotional brochures it distributes, and what practices does it not advertise? The answers to these questions not only cast an interesting light on the dissemination vectors for ‘good practices’ in the running of ‘medium’-sized enterprises but also raise questions regarding the dynamics – partially internal, but partially external as well – that give rise to that dissemination.
ACOME has clearly made continuous efforts for many years to ‘modernize’ its management practices, to bring new tools into the company (such as, very recently, a systematic comparison of wages with those available in the market for similar responsibilities) and to implement new methods of organization. There is no doubt that the underlying motivation of those in charge has always been to ensure, by meticulous application, the lasting survival of an undertaking that is regarded as the common property of all the coopérateurs. The social aspect of the company’s practices, particularly everything related to the protection of jobs, also reflects an ethical commitment which draws upon the traditions of the cooperative movement.
Other ‘good practices’, such as the various quality and environmental certifications with which ACOME is proud to have complied, clearly anticipate or respond to the expectations of customers, who are imposing more and more detailed specifications on their suppliers. ACOME cannot be unaware that it cannot use its cooperative values as an argument to set itself above its competitors. The English version of the promotional brochure makes no reference to its status as a cooperative, but does display the whole series of certificates obtained.
One of the surprises of our on-site study was to find that those we spoke to unexpectedly associated the CSR questionnaire (of which they had no knowledge before we introduced them to it) and the specifications for an invitation to tender to which they had recently replied. They had been somewhat surprised by the inquisitorial tone of those specifications, as applied to areas which, previously, had not been the subject of any questions in tender documentation. ACOME was questioned, for example, not only about its training policy but also about the number of days lost to strikes each year, the existence of procedures for checking alcohol and drug levels in employees’ blood, and, in the latter case, the principle of voluntary submission to such tests, as required by ‘human rights’.
This episode, the somewhat inquisitorial nature of which had surprised some of those to whom we spoke, is a good illustration of one of the concerns frequently raised in connection with the development of CSR in the world of small and medium-sized enterprises: the fact that customers, being content to ‘transfer’ the issue of social responsibility to their suppliers, in order to limit the risk of being questioned on such issues themselves, become the vectors of a ‘procedural’ and ‘bureaucratized’ development of social responsibility. This trend would be bound to represent an additional burden on small and medium-sized enterprises, without necessarily encouraging or recognizing the substantial efforts routinely made by companies such as ACOME in the field of corporate social responsibility.
B.2.4.2. Can the social responsibility of a very large undertaking and a ‘medium-large undertaking’ be measured in the same way?
If we were to question the local population around Mortain about the socially responsible nature of ACOME, where all families in the area hope to see their children employed, there is no doubt that the answers would be enormously positive.
Yet ACOME publishes no reports on its ‘good practices’ and issues hardly any communications to the media. The cooperative is not particularly active in sponsoring local activities; if it does do so, nothing was said about it during our visit. Like all production workers’ cooperatives, ACOME is legally exempt from paying the business tax due to local authorities.
The international development of the group, and especially the creation of foreign subsidiaries in Brazil and China, also did nothing to prompt internal questions about the company’s social responsibility, for example towards the employees of those distant affiliates. Those we questioned at Mortain seemed to be thinking essentially as shareholders, worrying about the future profitability of these investments, which had in any case been made in order to comply with the wishes of a major car industry customer to see his subcontractors transfer some of their know-how to his home country.
To summarize, then, ACOME’s performance in terms of social responsibility could well be assessed as very moderate if it were measured against the criteria put forward by the ‘global players’, displaying their contribution to the social development of their environment and their desire for internal transparency and for dialogue with interested parties outside the undertaking (consumes, public authorities and NGOs). It may be added that ACOME is not a member of an approved CSR organization and that the majority of its executives are still ignorant of the content of the Green Paper recently published on the subject.
And yet, as we showed earlier, ACOME does indeed seem to be a ‘substantially’ socially responsible undertaking, firmly established in a region within which it fights to preserve jobs, while improving the quality of its staff training and its products, and observing the rules governing health and safety at work. ACOME is indeed involved, then, in defending a social fabric that has been undermined by the rural exodus and de-industrialization. Its presence is certainly regarded as an opportunity for the local community, even if more and more ACOME employees have come from far away to work there.
ACOME’s reputation is both too well established in its local area and much too weak elsewhere, having regard to its size and the nature of its production activities, which are invisible to consumers or neighbours, for ACOME to have any concerns about the risks of being called to account by local society. In brief, the question raised by our case study is whether ACOME’s social responsibility can be considered in the same terms and use the same measurement and control methods as that of the global players, such as Peugeot and France Telecom, which are its main customers.
B.3 CONTINENTAL TEVES
B.3.1 Presentation of the undertaking
The undertaking is a complex one, comprising various decision levels. The works studied is a company (Continental Teves) attached to one of the divisions of a major international group (Continental), that division having been acquired from another group (ITT) in the late 1990s. The group’s key figures over the period before the restructuring operation were as follows (Continental’s figures for 1998 reflect the effects of its purchase of ITT’s assets):
Turnover (in billions of FFR)
Within Continental, the division is organized into three sections: the first is responsible for production of some of the subassemblies and their installation in the finished product, the second is responsible only for the production of another set of subassemblies, and the third produces those subassemblies that involve electronics. The works whose closure is examined here was one of the 13 industrial sites of the ‘subassemblies and systems’ section, whose turnover and workforce at the end of 1998 were, respectively, FFR 21 billion and 15 500 people. The economic situations of the various entities that make up this complex are as follows: the group is profitable; the division is profitable; within the division, two of the three sections are profitable, but the one to which the works belongs is loss-making; the works itself is profitable.
The works itself had the status of a company, and it was therefore at the level of that company (Continental-Teves) that the works council was established and the information and consultation procedure would be organized. This company is an affiliate of a French SNC (a form of limited partnership), which is itself the affiliate of a holding company representing some of the Continental Group’s participating interests in France. The works is located in the eastern part of the Paris region and employs 280 people on open-ended contracts, 2 on fixed-term contracts and 5 apprentices.
The works is unionized, the only union represented being the CGT. The works council comprises 5 permanent and 5 alternate members.